Writes on international development, aid, politics, management, complexity, etc. at Find What Works blog and elsewhere. Also: Director of Programs, @theReboot.
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Illiterate voters: Making their mark

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SUVARNA PADEKAR cannot read. “It hurts,” she says, but she manages to get by as a cook in Mumbai. Each morning her employers let her know what food to prepare by leaving pictures of vegetables, rice and so on stuck to the fridge. Soon Mrs Padekar will pick her favourite from similar images—at the voting booth. Almost 815m people will be eligible to vote in India’s general elections, which start on April 7th (see article). About a quarter are illiterate and will identify their choices by party symbols such as a hand, lotus, or elephant.Illiterates are a big share of the electorate in several other countries going to the polls this year, including Afghanistan (on April 5th), Brazil, Iraq, Malawi and Mozambique. Compared with their compatriots who can read, they will be less likely to cast a vote at all, and more likely to spoil their vote if they do. Illiteracy rates are higher among marginalised ethnic minorities and the poor: 5-35% for Roma (gypsies) in European countries, for example. Far more...
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dalgoso
2736 days ago
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A simple theory of college, elites, parties, women, and fraternities

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Harry from Crooked Timber writes:

The authors lived for a year in a “party” dorm in a large midwestern flagship public university (not mine) and kept up with the women in the dorm till after they had graduated college. The thesis of the book is that the university essentially facilitates (seemingly knowingly, and in some aspects strategically) a party pathway through college, which works reasonably well for students who come from very privileged backgrounds. The facilitatory methods include: reasonably scrupulous enforcement of alcohol bans in the dorms (thus enhancing the capacity of the fraternities to monopolize control of illegal drinking and, incidentally, forcing women to drink in environments where they are more vulnerable to sexual assault); providing easy majors which affluent students can take which won’t interfere with their partying, and which will lead to jobs for them, because they have connections in the media or the leisure industries that will enable them to get jobs without good credentials; and assigning students to dorms based on choice (my students confirm that dorms have reputations as party, or nerdy, or whatever, dorms that ensure that they retain their character over time, despite 100% turnover in residents every year).

The problem is that other students (all their subjects are women), who do not have the resources to get jobs in the industries to which the easy majors orient them, and who lack the wealth to keep up with the party scene, and who simply cannot afford to have the low gpas that would be barriers to their future employment, but which are fine for affluent women, get caught up in the scene. They are, in addition, more vulnerable to sexual assault, and less insulated (because they lack family money) against the serious risks associated with really screwing up. The authors tell stories of students seeking upward social mobility switching their majors from sensible professional majors to easy majors that lead to jobs available only through family contacts, not through credentials. Nobody is alerting these students to the risks they are taking. So the class inequalities at entry are exacerbated by the process. Furthermore, the non-party women on the party floor are, although reasonably numerous, individually isolated—they feel like losers, not being able to keep up with the heavy demands of the party scene. The authors document that the working class students who thrive are those who transfer to regional colleges near their birth homes.

The post is interesting throughout.  The book he is discussing is Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, which I have just ordered.

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dalgoso
2810 days ago
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Language, Power, and Global Health: the privilege of speaking English

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picture of a window with graffiti that says F+2=love

 

My first couple of overseas jobs were pretty much just being the native English speaker on staff. Right after undergrad, I was an intern with the American University in Cairo. I drafted or edited every piece of writing that came out of our office. Later on, after my master’s degree, I was an intern again. And I drafted and edited, again. My international health degree was all well and good, but what they really needed was someone to make their grant applications sound good. My experience isn’t uncommon; I’d argue that it’s even the norm.

In other words, young Americans get jobs because the language of global health is English. Through nothing more than luck, we – literally – speak the language of power, and we can use that to get jobs.

I’ll repeat that, because it sucks so much. We get jobs because of an accident of birth.

Most of us go on to get jobs where we’re useful for other reasons. I’ve got a decent set of technical and managerial skills now; I am pretty sure I could get hired on those alone. But I don’t have to be hired on those alone. This makes me a direct beneficiary of global inequality, even in a field that is committed to eradicating inequality.

Because of the way the field is designed.

My Russian is seriously ungrammatical, my Uzbek is irrelevant in most countries, and my French is much better written than spoken. But hey, I speak English, so none of that matters.

On the other hand, I had a colleague once. A genuinely brilliant woman, with a PhD and an MD and fluent in three languages. Her English wasn’t great, though. So most people thought she was kind of silly.

Tech tools may help this. There aren’t a lot of global health problems with obvious (rather than complex) technical fixes, but the language problem is one of them. It seems to get better every day.

Google translate is breaking down a lot of barriers. There are people I email in English and paste the Russian google translate text underneath my original letter. They reply in Russian with the machine English below. I can read the auto-English and use it as a guide to the original Russian. That’s a huge step forward for everyone.

Lingvo is very popular among my Central Asian colleagues. It helps everybody make their way through unfamiliar English vocabulary, and it really seems to help people with writing. There are a few errors in Lingvo, especially with medical language, that I have seen so many times that I recognize them. But it’s a great start.

Software tricks are just the start, though. Helping people get better at using the language of power is a short-term fix. What we need is a system which doesn’t treat English speakers like they’re smarter than everyone else – a system where every language is a language of power.

(photo credit: me) 

The post Language, Power, and Global Health: the privilege of speaking English appeared first on Blood and Milk.

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dalgoso
2828 days ago
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Yikes, not only is it hard for us to do experiments with firms, it can be really hard for firms to experiment on themselves

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I came across a new working paper written by researchers at Google and Microsoft with the title “on the near impossibility of measuring the returns to advertising”. They begin by noting the astounding statistic that annual US advertising revenue is $173 billion, or about $500 per American per year. That’s right, more than the GDP per capita of countries like Burundi, Madagascar and Eritrea is spent just on advertising!
The question they ask is then whether this advertising is worth it. They consider 25 online advertising experiments done by American retailers, totaling $2.8 million, summarized in the table below:

You can see these experiments typically have more than 1 million customers in them. The retailers are able to randomize delivery of the advertisements at the individual level, and link to individual purchase decisions.  However, they find:
 
  • Only 10 out of the 25 experiments have sufficient power to detect whether the advertising had any effect at all on consumer behavior.
  • Only 3 out of the 25 experiments have sufficient power to be able to distinguish between a 0% return on investment, and a wildly profitable campaign which has a 50% return on investment over 2 weeks!
  • The median confidence interval for the return on investment is over 100 percentage points wide.
Basically the problem is that individual-level sales are incredibly volatile and heterogeneous: the standard deviation of sales is typically ten times the mean over the advertising period. As a result, there is so much noise that it is very difficult for retailers to detect a treatment effect.

This came as a surprise to me, after hearing about how large retailers run 1000s of experiments a year (e.g. in my review of Jim Manzi’s book I give an example from his book that Capital One runs more than 60,000 experiments per year) – this new paper is saying that for many firms, when it comes to advertising at least, it is almost impossible for them to know whether it is working or not.

However, it is similar to the problems we face in trying to learn whether government policies to help firms are working or not – basically the problem is that even sizeable effects of policies are small relative to the enormous heterogeneity there is across firms, and volatility that exists in sales and profits for a given firm over time.

I have thought a lot about the implications of this for learning about the effectiveness of policies, but much less about the implications for firms’ abilities to learn about themselves. The same problems with learning the return from advertising are likely to be as much, or even more, of an issue for firms attempting to learn the impact of changes in other business practices they employ. This might help explain why the lack of adoption by many firms of a large number of modern management practices – if firms can’t tell whether they are working or not, even if these practices have incredibly high returns, then it is perhaps no wonder that many firms don’t take up such practices.

This matters, because in the rare cases we do an intervention on firms and find that it works, the immediate response is why firms haven’t done it already/what the market failure is that prevents this occurring without our help?  E.g. we find that improving management services has high returns to firms, so the immediate response of some economists is to say “if this really works so well, why aren’t firms improving it of their own accord, or at least the market providing these improvements to firms”. But if it is really hard for a single firm to learn whether any change they make works or not, the scope for learning is much much less. As the authors note, this provides an added advantage to being a really large firm – they can be the only ones with the scale to let this learning take place.  It also provides a further role for the types of experimental interventions we are doing – opening up the possibility to learn across firms things that no single firm can learn by itself.
 
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dalgoso
2842 days ago
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Her Versus The Square: Tropes of Liberation Technology

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Her, Spike Jonze’s latest and most philosophical feature film, and The Square, an Oscar-nominated documentary that depicts the ongoing Egyptian Revolution, each illustrate popular portrayals of how technology will liberate us.

Her movie 2013 screenshot future la

Her is set in a futuristic Los Angeles where Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with “Samantha,” his Siri-like mobile operating system. (With Scarlett Johansson’s playful, flirtatious voice, we all fall a little in love with Theodore’s operating system.)

Like most fiction set in the future, Jonze pushes the difficult questions of policy and economics to the background in order to focus on the character development of Theodore, Samantha, and the supporting cast. Jason Farago observes in an intriguing New Republic review that we only hear the name of the company responsible for Samantha’s creation, Element Software, once while the story is still taking shape. All questions of how much Theodore pays for his operating system (and girlfriend), what personal information she collects about him, and what role the government has in regulating likely surveillance are ignored.

For Farago, in the wake of the NSA leaks, this is the most frightening aspect of the whole movie. He finds significance in the fact that the high definition shots of futuristic Los Angeles are composites of contemporary LA mixed with Shanghai’s Pudong district.

In Jonze’s filmic vocabulary China is shorthand for the future, and why shouldn’t it be? A society such as the one in Her, in which even our emotions have been co-opted by corporate entities, is highly unlikely to be a democracy.

In other words, for Farago, Her depicts a future in which citizens are more concerned with the emotional relationships they develop with their gadgets than the difficult problems of democracy and civil society. What’s most unsettling about the film — like Dave Eggers’ The Circle — is that much of the future already exists today. Important policy conversations on surveillance or gay rights have difficulty competing with the latest product announcements by Apple or Google. (Imagine if “Congressional Rumors” had just one-tenth as many readers as Mac Rumors.)

Town hall meetings are practically empty while young people stare mindlessly into their screens as they walk down the sidewalk. At one point in Her, Theodore’s neighbor and friend, Amy, shows him a scene from a documentary she is filming. There is nothing else in the frame but her mother sleeping with an expression of relaxed contentment.” Embarrassed by the bewilderment from Theodore and her husband, she explains hurriedly, “we spend a third of our lives asleep, dreaming. But what if that is when we actually feel free?” Taken in another context, the line is clearly meant to defend those who choose to spend a third of their lives playing video games or talking to their computers. If that’s what makes them happy, who are we to judge? Later in the movie, when Theodore asks Amy if he’s crazy for falling in love with his computer, she responds: “We’re only here a short while. While we’re here we should feel joy. So fuck it!”

Her depicts a future without messy discussions and debates about rights and markets and democracy so that we can increasingly focus on joy and the pursuit of happiness.

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There is relatively little joy in The Square, the Oscar-nominated documentary film by Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim that follows the ongoing Egyptian Revolution from the point of view of young, liberal activists.

The Square depicts an Egyptian society united in protest but fragmented in its vision for what the country should become. After thirty years of authoritarian rule by Hosni Mubarak, the country’s liberals, Muslims and Christians all come together to take over Tahrir Square and demand that Mubarak step down. With the army initially on the side of the protesters, Mubarak eventually relinquishes control. This much is common knowledge, but it only makes up the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film.

With Mubarak out of power, the alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the young (often Western-educated) liberals begins to break down. While the liberals demand a new constitution that will lay the legislative foundation for a truly representative democracy, the more conservative groups of the Muslim Brotherhood advocate for Sharia law. When Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi wins the first post-Mubarak presidential election, the liberals are crushed. Once again they take to Tahrir Square to set up their tents and protest, but this time they must compete with pro-Morsi Muslim Brotherhood protesters — the same Muslim Brotherhood protesters that were at their side calling for Mubarak’s ouster.

The Square is unabashedly sympathetic to the young liberals. The only significant Muslim Brotherhood character is often more sympathetic to his liberal friends than members of his own party. Writing in Al Jazeera, Evan Hill argues that The Square tells “the sexy story of the revolution,” while ignoring the thorny class and sectarian issues that lie at the foundation of the conflict between the liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Throughout the documentary, technology is the trump card of the young liberals. A significant portion of the film takes place in the Tahrir Square-facing apartment of Pierre Sioufi, dubbed the “Guru of the Revolution” by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. Sioufi’s apartment, the “Facebook Flat,” is a meeting place for young, tech-savvy protesters who debate passionately in rapid-fire Arabic and English. Maybe they can’t compete with the numbers of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are stubbornly optimistic that social networks, international media and Tahrir Square will empower them to bring down any government. And, sure enough, Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, was forced out of office last July when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed him from power and suspended the constitution after four days of mass protest.

In a leaked audio recording of Morsi speaking with his lawyer earlier this week, he calls the endless protests useless. But that’s not the conclusion of The Square. Asked what they have achieved since the spring of 2011, the young liberals respond that they have learned to protest, that they have taught the youth to protest, that they will continue to protest until they achieve their goals. “We are all Tahrir now. Tahrir is everywhere.” With an uplifting protest anthem as soundtrack, the camera cuts from scene to scene of young people raising their fists in the air, emboldened by their capacity to take down a government and frustrated by their inability to “move outside Tahrir Square and into politics.”

Aerial View of Singapore

A few days ago I was having a conversation with the co-founder of a young civil society organization here in Mexico City. Prior to his focus on civic participation, he worked as an investor in Singapore. We traded stories and observations about our time in both cities. Singapore is famously clean. Just about everything runs flawlessly and on time. It was a swamp with a population of less than 1,000 just 200 years ago; today it is one of the most modern cities in the world with giant, brightly-lit malls lining most streets. Mexico City, on the other hand, is chaotic, messy, and forever tardy. Not a day goes by without some major protest. It’s difficult to find half the consumer goods and electronics that one can find in Singapore.

So we agreed: we’d much rather live in Mexico City. Part of democracy is questioning authority, even if that means taking to the streets and raising one’s fists in protest. The simplified social contract of Singapore is to not question authority in order to enjoy the comforts of modern capitalism. It struck me after our conversation that Her versus The Square represented extreme versions of the same difference between Singapore and Mexico City — the difference of striving for our ideals or for comfort.

With much justification, pessimists like Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov see us sliding rapidly toward a Her-like future where our infatuation with technology distracts us from questions of democracy, civil rights and economic inequality. On the other hand, also with some justification, optimists point to social media and technology as a “fifth estate” that will empower the masses to rise up against the abuses of the authoritarian elite, as is depicted in The Square. There are concrete examples of how social media empowers the middle class to confront elite impunity, as I’ve written about recently. But those cases are few and far between. When tech-savvy activists attempt to move from protest to politics — by supporting, say, Howard Dean in the US or Antanas Mockus in Colombia — their record is far less impressive.

I believe that most of us don’t want to live in a future depicted by either Her or The Square. We’re tired of the endless protest, but we’re not satisfied with the status quo. What’s missing is a compelling narrative in the middle that can compete with the fist-pumping passion of The Square and the sexy gadgets of Her.

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dalgoso
2851 days ago
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Comment section conundrums

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“WHY are feminists so stupid?” wrote Alan Jorge, under a video titled “A FEMINIST – HATE WEEK!” Posts such as this one have led Youtube to recognise that its comment sections have become a breeding ground for ignorance, intolerance, and spam. Two months ago, to address the issue, the site revamped such sections, linking them to Google+, in the hopes of increasing culpability.

But the change left them vulnerable to new types of spam so YouTube tried again, updating the site to improve its detection of comments containing unwanted links and ASCII art (images made from text). In the past month, it has made yet more modifications, adding a new comment management page. These are not the first alterations to YouTube’s comment section, nor will they be the last if the site hopes to promote moderation.

Comment sections on high volume websites have become increasingly problematic. The mixture of public anonymity and tech prowess has put such sites on the defensive as they attempt to combat spam and uncouth behaviour. Their goal is to find and preserve a sweet spot between civility and freedom of expression. The uphill battle against...Continue reading

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2864 days ago
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