Neema Iyer: Blazing a trail in technology and data

Saturday July 31 2021
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Neema Lyer

By Claire Balungi

The Facebook of today, you will notice is quite different from the Facebook of five years ago. The social media platform giant as most of its regular users have seen is constantly changing, in various ways, from tweaking their products to creating new policies, to managing challenges in a bid to ensure their community enjoys using the platform.

And one of the latest innovations is the creation of the Global Women’s Safety Advisory Board, that was launched on July 1, in which Facebook has brought together a group of 12 women from different countries to advise on how to make the internet safer for women globally.

Composition of the board

The women who are from backgrounds such as civil society, non-profit, activism and academia, shall meet periodically, and Facebook will solicit advice on features, new community guidelines, products and policies from them. The members on the board shall advise, based on their knowledge and expertise.

One of these 12 women is Uganda’s Neema Iyer and her appointment is a prestigious one. When asked what she believes got her appointed to the board, Iyer says among other things, it was likely because of the research that Pollicy (an organisation she co-founded) has done on the topic, especially using a feminist lens. “It is important to have more representation on these kinds of boards, so that we can bring these problems into account. For example, two thirds of Ugandans are not online. What happens if somebody posts a picture of a woman who is not an internet user and people comment on it? Is it right or wrong? How we can get more people online,” she explains.

For those who know Iyer, it is no surprise that she has been appointed to this role. Her love for technology dates far back when she was a little girl.

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Growing up, a computer was not safe from Iyer’s grasp. She fell in love with technology at a young age and by eight years, she had a computer at her disposal.

A few years later, she would get to experience the internet. “I got snail mail pals, the friends you would get online and write letters to one another. I later switched to e-pals and it was so cool. You could have friends from anywhere in the world. I started doing animations and I learnt how to build websites,” says Iyer.

She later pursued a course in Public Health in the US but she eventually found her way back to tech. Iyer moved to Uganda in 2013 and set up Pollicy, a civic tech organisation based in Kampala. The organisation builds data products and undertakes research on data governance, digital rights and carries out data literacy programmes.

Pollicy hosts an annual event, DataFest Kampala, which brings together hundreds of people from different sectors to talk about data and how it can be used. It also conducts trainings to mould thought architects of Uganda’s tech culture and pertinent research on related topics.

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Her innovations

Iyer is proud of her work which has featured a number of civic projects such as “Create Your Kampala” where her team spoke to people from all the five divisions of Kampala on public service delivery and worked together with the communities.

They also worked with artists who create murals around the city as a springboard to engage local leaders on service delivery.

Another project, “Alternate Realities, Alternate Identities” was an online gender-based violence research, where Iyer’s team spoke to 3,000 women, in five countries across Africa, including Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and Senegal.

The team sought to understand the experiences of women in online spaces, how technology platforms respond to them and how the legal system supports the women. The project has done pivotal work in building knowledge in Africa on online violence. These and many more projects Iyer is part of are mostly focused on steering the conversation on Africa’s use of data for different purposes.

And it is from these projects and experiences that she plans to share her expertise with the Facebook advisory board. This board will address challenges that women face daily on internet spaces.

Physical space vs online space

“As women navigate the physical world, there are a lot of challenges; whether one is going to the market, walking on the street, there is harassment or sexual violence.

Similarly, these patriarchal cultural norms are replicated on online spaces. The first time I used the internet, it appeared like a world where everyone was equal. And there was a lot of anonymity back in the day. As more and more people came online, the physical world was replicated online,” she says.

Neema says that many of the problems that manifest in everyday life also show up online and that threatens the safety of people online.

That notwithstanding, Iyer believes online spaces are more open.

“In the physical world, so many things come into account, such as class, gender, ethnicity, tribe, ability, disability and the like. Online spaces, on the other hand, allow users to coexist and find communities of their interests, which gives a sense of belonging,” she emphasises.

She says while people may be insulted online, they can also find a very strong family who can understand what one is going through.

“For example, we talked to a woman in Angola for one of our studies called ‘Afrofeminist Data Futures’. She said she didn’t know that there were many other feminists in Angola but thanks to social media platforms, they were able to connect on similar fora and share ideas and challenges. They were also able to plan and build a whole movement. This is one of the pros that transcends distance, class and family or whatever differences we may have,” she explains.

Making online spaces safe

Neema continually draws attention to digital inclusion, which is about making online spaces accessible, safe and affordable to many, regardless of their social classes.

“People have different economic levels and cannot all afford the internet yet it should be affordable. Another aspect is on gender; is social media a safe space for women who want to join those platforms?

According to Iyer, research shows that about some 20-25 per cent of women who experienced online violence either deleted their online profiles or left an online service altogether.

While efforts are underway to increase representation of women on online spaces, it is important that such spaces are safe for users.

 Besides affordability, accessibility and safety of the internet, Iyer says users need to feel welcome and understand the content.

 “In a relatively big section of the world, people get news from Twitter. Agenda setting happens on online spaces and unfortunately, if you are not there, you really are missing out,” she adds.

Bottlenecks

In her line of work, Neema has faced challenges that have downplayed her effort to improve technology for her target audiences.

“Changing mindset around digitalisation is no mean feat. Government partners are sceptics. It is difficult to get them to buy into digital ideas as well as securing funding for public interest technology and research. This affects the uptake of new digital tools and methodologies,” she says.

 “With work from home, we can hire people from anywhere in the world so competition has increased. I usually feel very sad when I see young people going to a conference and sitting in a corner or only talking to their friend. So much of these events is about networking. Get to know who else is in the space, email people, ask for a call. If somebody puts out a blog, write a comment on it. This shows that you are invested in the space or the topic. When you are invited to a conference, speak up, show that you have been listening, and show that you care about the topic. It is competitive out there, so lead with your best foot.”

Many hats

While one might think all Neema does is breathe and live technology, she wears many hats: “I am a technologist and artist, a feminist, an avid reader, painter and a generally curious person. For what it’s worth, I would love to be a fictional author at some point. I have unsuccessfully started a number of books. Maybe now I’ll tend to short stories and I’ll actually finish one. Usually at 5pm, I just switch on to doing other things that are more fun like exercising, I go for runs, call my friends. I like doing outdoorsy things,” she says about her likes and hobbies.

Innovations.

Products

Neema Iyer is proud of her work which has featured a number of civic projects such as “Create Your Kampala” where her team spoke to people from all the five divisions of Kampala on public service delivery and worked together with the communities.

They also worked with artists who create murals around the city as a springboard to engage local leaders on service delivery.

Another project, “Alternate Realities, Alternate Identities” was an online gender-based violence research, where Iyer’s team spoke to 3,000 women, in five countries across Africa, including Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and Senegal.

About her works

Art is one of those hobbies of Iyer’s that she dived into a bit more and merges with her technology work. She does illustrations for reports and blogs at work. She generally loves creating media in the work she does and her mission with all the art is to enable accessibility and understanding of topics or subjects that wouldn’t otherwise be understood by minds that are not often exposed to tech content/material.

“It’s really fun giving a very strong visual identity to our projects and I also love using creative media in general in our work because I really want the topics we work on to be accessible. They do tend to be more complex topics, for instance how do you explain things like data protections or AI or machine learning to someone who has never owned a mobile phone and how do you make it relevant, how do you make the information accessible? I hope that by using art in different forms, we can get some greater proportion of people engaging more with the topic and moving the discourse further,” she concludes.


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