I wrote my application for the the Build Peace Fellowship by candlelight. Myanmar still suffers from regular power cuts and I have learnt to equip my apartment with a ready supply of candles. Alone in the near-dark, I had an idea that mobile phones could be used to improve the work our team was doing to monitor rumors about communal violence in Myanmar.
Against a backdrop of underlying tensions between Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and its Muslim minority, a rapidly changing political context and opening of political space coupled with the exponential expansion of social media has led to a proliferation of rumors, many of them propagating anti-Muslim sentiment, and a growing need to monitor them.
Over the last four years, rumors have contributed to numerous outbreaks of inter-religious violence. Beginning in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2012, where conflict left over 150,000 people displaced and several hundred people dead, sporadic outbreaks of violence have since spread to towns and villages across the country. Many of these incidents have been sparked by the spread of rumors that, without timely verification, have become triggers for violence. In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, violence broke out in 2014 following the spread of a rumor of the rape of a Buddhist woman by two Muslim teashop owners. The rumor, widely shared on Facebook in the days preceding the incident, was later proven to be untrue. Yet the verification came too late — at the cost of two lives and multiple injuries.
In recognition of this problem, the Center for Diversity and National Harmony (CDNH) has developed an Early Warning Early Response (EWER) system to monitor incidents — including rumors — associated with communal tensions. It has developed a network of community monitors across the country who provide regular updates on information and incidents to CDNH, who then pass on verified information and recommendations to key stakeholders in Myanmar. As recent weeks have seen an upsurge in violence in Northern Rakhine State, the proliferation of rumours across Myanmar has become even more pronounced and, given the violent turn events have taken in Rakhine, more dangerous.
Currently, the connection between local monitors and our head office in Yangon is based on weekly phone calls. These phone calls are time-consuming, reducing the number of people CDNH can reach out to, and not particularly engaging for local monitors. Monitors provide information to us over the phone, but lack ownership over the work they are doing and fail to grasp the importance of their information to the broader environment because they don’t see where their information goes or who else is part of the network .
It was these challenges that sparked my application to the Build Peace Fellowship — a proposal that has progressed to the development of an application for our local monitors. The app, to be piloted in early 2017, will enable local network members to 1) report rumors related to communal tensions, 2) check rumors reported by other network members and interact with those rumors by commenting on them or providing evidence for or against the rumor and 3) interact with other members of the network.
The app will serve to increase the number of reports received by CDNH, and will improve communication with our local network while fostering stronger connections and a greater sense of ownership among them. In response to their reports, we will verify or debunk rumors and provide those updates back to the local networks, who can in turn disseminate accurate information among their communities. The app will greatly expedite and streamline the process.
The process — user-centered design
Coming up with the initial concept was the easy part — on paper my candlelit application articulated a clear progression from challenges to solutions. Yet what has followed — the design process accompanied by Build Peace — has been much more challenging. At the heart of the fellowship is a deep commitment to the process of user-centered design. By thinking about the users of the app, bringing them in as participants in the design process, the end product has become more targeted, more streamlined and ultimately, more relevant. Yet getting to that end has felt, at times, like stepping out of the candlelight into a bright neon-lit room, exposed and vulnerable.
Throughout the design process, I’ve learned to cross-examine my own ideas, and above all, to open my ideas up for cross-examination from others. I have engaged with discussions with other fellows, with my team in Myanmar, with others in Myanmar and most importantly with the people our app will target. They have challenged me to step away from my own idea and to start, develop and iterate with the user at the center. They have prioritized engaging with the people who will use the app to report, check and interact with rumors about communal tensions in Myanmar, and with the local team who will receive, analyze and respond to those rumors through verification and communications.
While such conversations seem inevitable and necessary to anyone with experience in this field, for newcomers to tech like myself and my peers, the process of learning and implementation can be filled with fear and insecurity. I feared that user testing would display the model’s unsuitability for the context, that it would send me back to the drawing board or, worse, that the problem I thought I had cracked? Maybe it didn’t exist.
Each user-centered design conversation was preceded by a lingering unease. ‘Why was I selected?’ ‘What do I know about technology?’ ‘What do I know about Myanmar?’ ‘What if my idea is completely terrible?’ All these questions and many more raced through my head as my idea moved from its candlelit beginnings to an actual app. While talking to individuals about your ideas may be easy for those accustomed to this field, for newcomers like myself and my peers on the fellowship, the process is filled with fear and insecurity.
Yet these conversations, once launched, have been the most fruitful elements of the fellowship and ultimately, of the design itself. By developing user stories for local monitors at the Build Peace Fellows training in Barcelona, I realized the importance of time constraints on individual users. By testing a paper prototype on members of my team back in Myanmar, articulation of these time constraints led to a reduction in the number of screens by half. By conducting interviews with prospective users, the interaction model was altered to include private usernames and stronger privacy settings. Throughout the design process, prospective users also challenged me to drop the public-facing nature of the app to focus on a more closed network. They have sparked long debates about whether a rumor checking function should be labelled ‘check’ or ‘read’ when translated into Burmese, a lesson that emphasizes the importance of localization and understanding of cultural and linguistic contexts in design processes.
Ultimately, designing with people has enabled me to see what I have and what’s important. Each conversation has been a leap into the unknown, and out into a smarter, more realistic, better informed design model. As people using the app will be key to its success — more users reporting more rumors will in turn provide more content for other users to engage with — the app needs to be meeting their own needs, and not that of the designer or the implementer.
It is all too easy to design, develop and implement a project without consultation with those whom it targets. We are all bedroom geniuses and it is perhaps an innate human quality not to want to be wrong, not to open ourselves up to challenge and to stay in the comfortable candlelight of our own ideas.
But it is exactly that process, with all the fears that might accompany it, that make the difference between success and failure — or perhaps, between assured failure and potential success. The idea with which I applied to be a Build Peace Fellow has been altered beyond recognition by adopting a user-centered design approach, yet I am confident that its current iteration is stronger than any I could have come up with alone.
As the Fellowship continues, I look forward to continuing the process of cross-examination. Over the next few months, we will engage with more local communities about the app, preparing them for the pilot project to be implemented in early 2017. After the pilot, we will return to the drawing board, to assess, re-evaluate and modify the initial model. This time, I am prepared for the process to be led, not by my own ideas and private musings, but by the advice, suggestions and developments of those at the heart of the platform itself.