"Developers must talk to sociologists and gender-scholars to ensure inclusion in tech solutions.”

Caroline Wamala-Larsson has been involved in tech since her early years. Born in Uganda, she was very early on confronted with the lack of Internet access among the women that surrounded her. Twenty years later, she is a researcher in gender and technology working with research that supports implementation in Sweden at SPIDER Center, where she and her colleagues support organisations in partner countries to address social challenges and gaps through the use of digital solutions. Caroline and other colleagues at SPIDER, collaborate with researchers in the partner countries to ensure that digital international development is supported by evidence and needs  in Africa, South East Asia and South America. Today, Missions Publiques met Caroline as we collaborate on EQUALS EU, a European project to develop inclusive tech solutions in Europe.

How did you go from an accountant to a researcher in gender and technology?

In 1997, I sent an email for the first time and understood how privileged I was. I grew up in different countries in Southern Africa and people from my community did not have access to computers like I did, especially women. So as I started off my career as an accountant, but I was also commissioned to teach how to use computer applications because people noticed that I had an ability to explain knowledge in a simple way. I still remember going to one of these trainings and being a 24-year-old woman in a room of 30 men, many of whom were old enough to be my father. And I remember thinking “where are the women?”. It was so strange. I decided to engage with more women so that they too could reap the same benefits of what I felt was giving me access to the world. Inevitably, I started reconsidering my career as I was driven by the will to understand the sociology of inequality: why do some people have simpler and privileged access in society? Should I continue with accounting or should I branch out?

A little later I got into a Science Technology and Society program in Sweden which was the first time for me to work with gender and social theories. This was such an eye-opener. After my PhD in gender and technology, I continued my research around women’s experiences with technology especially women in Swaziland (where I used to live which is now called Estwatini) and then in Uganda, the place I was born. There, I spent a lot of time with farmers trying to understand their information seeking practices and where gender fell in that spectrum. 4 years later I was privileged to get a job at Spider Center (Swedish Program ICT in Developing Regions) located at Stockholm University. Our goal there is to develop ICT/digital solutions as enablers in closing social gaps and transforming communities so that the technology is assistive – it is not a solution. We focus most of our work on health, education and what we used to call “democracy” but that we now call transparency & accountability.

Why the change of name? Because more and more digital platforms are being used as surveillance tools, internet shutdowns have become tools to oppress and silence people. So when you talk about using ICTs for democracy, this already raises so many red flags for our partners around the world. We changed the name to encompass what we really do: build a more transparent access to public information (it can be as simple as how do I apply for a driver’s license? How do I apply for birth certificate?).

We believe the use of digital technologies and in addition the reliance on research as a data gathering method to understand what communities needs are, and what their realities are, is of great value to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals/Agenda 2030.

“Sociologists, critical race theorists, but also gender scholars and activists (…) are the people decision-making bodies should talk to when thinking of solutions for the whole society.

Caroline Wamala-Larsson

Researcher in gender and technology at SPIDER Center (Sweden)

How do you think we should address racial and gender equity in tech?

The tech-world is so dynamic and exciting, but it can also be tech-focused. It’s important to make sure that algorithms are not biased in the way they are being created. To make sure this isn’t the case, I strongly believe that the tech industry should be multidisciplinary because it’s always great to have sociologists onboard: they might ask the questions that tech specialists such as programmers and developers may not consider. This is true for sociologists, critical race theorists, but also gender scholars and activists and so forth. These are the people decision-making bodies should talk to when thinking of solutions for the whole society.

If we have an inclusive approach to the work we do, then minorities will be contributing to their own digital future.

In this regard, working on the European EQUALS EU project with Missions Publiques and other members of the consortium is truly inspiring. So far, most of the work we’ve (SPIDER) been doing has been in the Global South, but now we’re aspiring to incredible activities within the EU region and that brings another regional perspective to digital transformation.

 

How did you join the consortium and what will your role in EQUALS EU be?

A couple of my colleagues went to IGF Berlin in 2019 and met George Anthony Giannoumis from Oslo Metropolitan University and he was very interested in our work at SPIDER so he promised to keep in touch, which he did. He put together a phenomenal proposal and invited SPIDER to join the consortium, and I was eventually was pulled in. Now here we are working together on this exciting initiative.

I am very proud to be leading the work package 1 by bringing in the research aspect in the general implementation project. Our first goal is to understand the EU landscape and where gender and digital ecosystems are as of now. In other words, we must showcase where social innovation and digital transformation stands right now in Europe and the extent to which tech processes incorporate gender equality. Our mission through this work package is to provide other members of the consortium with a status quo of today’s situation so that they can move forward with that evidence and proceed with the other work packages such as digital hackathons and innovation camps etc.

If equality in tech is our goal, then by all means we need to involve as many diverse groups as possible, and if deliberative processes are a good way to achieving that, they might even be the most effective way of getting anywhere near a more diverse tech solution-based world. Do I think it’s easy? No! It requires time, resources, and money to collect diverse voices. But it’s the only way to include them and co-create together. These processes are interesting also to capture why some groups don’t use some technologies. Understanding the reason why they don’t use them is necessary to adjust the solutions and fit their needs.

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