To put it simply, Neema Iyer is a trailblazer. Iyer is an artist and technologist influencing the digital development sector with her innovative lens on the intersection of data, technology, and design to improve government service delivery. The East African native is the founder and director of Pollicy, a feminist collective of technologists, data scientists, and creatives. After graduating with a master’s degree in global epidemiology from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Iyer returned to Africa, where she was exposed to the lack of gendered perspectives in the information and communications sector on the continent. Simultaneously, she was also experiencing and witnessing frustrations at various touch points with the government, such as securing important documents, information, or services.
Like a true innovator, Iyer saw these gaps as an opportunity, thus creating Pollicy. Since 2016, Pollicy has worked on a wide array of projects and has collaborated with partners such as Omidyar Network and Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society on “Automated Imperialism, Expansionist Dreams (Digital Extractivism),” the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation on “Data Artistry for Mental Health Awareness,” and Meta on “Afro Feminist Data Futures.”
Iyer has been featured in Forbes Africa, Daily Monitor, and Quartz Africa, and received the 2021 Digital Equality Award in the category of Uganda’s Research and Knowledge Builder. Iyer currently sits on Facebook’s Global Women’s Safety Advisory Board, where she consults on new policies, products, and programs tied to women’s safety.
Since 2016, Pollicy—through its data, design, and tech programs—has worked on more than 100 projects, conducted more than 200 data events, and trained nearly 5,000 people. We recently spoke to Iyer on the impacts of art and technology in decolonization, upcoming Pollicy projects, and how Global North donors and funders can be more mindful about their engagements with Africa.
Pollicy launched the biggest data festival in Africa, DataFest Kampala 2021. Neema Iyer is pictured at right. Photo: Daily Monitor.
We understand that you started Pollicy to create evidence-based engagement between citizens and governments on topics like service delivery. Take us back to the “aha” moment before Pollicy physically existed. What were you seeing that spurred the creation of Pollicy?
“I was mainly frustrated by the inefficiencies and the lack of dignity when receiving public services such as getting a new passport, trash disposal, securing a land title, service at government clinics, and so on. I knew that data and digitalization could streamline operations and improve experiences for both citizens and governments, but there was a huge gap at the time in understanding the importance or relevance of data as well as major resistance to change, which exists to this date. There have been many advances in e-government across many of the countries that we work in, but there is still a very, very long way to go, not just in the digitalization of services and service design, but in even making sure that all citizens can then access these digital services.”
Where did your drive to form an explicitly feminist collective come from?
“There is still a major digital gender divide across much of the world, which is particularly wide in Africa. In 2019, I had the opportunity to join the Feminist Internet Research Network, and getting to meet inspirational feminists doing groundbreaking work on internet studies was a major motivation to be more explicit about what and how I was planning to accomplish with Pollicy.”
In the Pollicy Our Story video, you identified three pillars of Pollicy’s work: data training, research on data, and building technology products based on data. How do these three workstreams fit together, and how does work in one workstream affect or influence Pollicy’s work in another?
“All three workstreams are very linked to one another. Our research informs the types of training we conduct and products the types of products that we build, as well as informs our general programming. Training, both internally and externally, is a core component of our work in building awareness about the importance of data, but also in highlighting the potential benefits and harms if misused.”
Given the sensitivity of the data that Pollicy collects from the communities it serves, how does Pollicy safeguard this data?
“We mainly collect anonymized data. We provide the option to withdraw consent at any time and ensure that participants fully understand the research studies we are interviewing them for.”
There is a connection between art and technology as it relates to colonialism and decolonization. The damaging effect of colonialism continues to impact African girls and women in the postcolonial society as it relates to art—we see this in sculpture, architecture, and so much more. In technology, we see this in digital neo-colonialism, specifically, 3-D scanning and 3-D printing, facial recognition, biometrics, and even in the rise of digital authoritarianism. Pollicy has done several projects using street art as a way to give information back to the people. As an artist and a woman taking the lead to innovate Africa, where do you see the intersection of art and technology and the impacts of digital neo-colonialism in the work you do? How can donors consider art and technology as mediums for combatting digital neo-colonialism?
“We believe it is very important to share back any data that we collect with communities. There are harmful practices of extraction whereby civil society actors, government, and international nongovernmental organizations collect data with false promises of impact, only to never return to the communities while they publish in journals, generate profit, fund their entities, etc. As such, as much as possible, we return back to the communities we worked with and we share back the data as murals, songs, dances, simple data visualizations, and workshops. We find that the communities do appreciate these gestures, while fully accepting that data comprehension still remains quite low.
“Art has an immense role in shaping technology. In the next month, we will be releasing an anthology of 15 speculative fiction short stories by youth from across Africa because we strongly believe that we need to write our own stories to conceptualize and plan for the types of futures that we want (or don’t want), and as a way to tackle encroaching neo-colonialism through its various extractive practices. Donor appetite for funding art, and funding it in a way grounded in respecting the time and effort of artists, is still extremely low. Furthermore, donor-funded art is rarely grounded in the freedom to be creative. For example, it’s always framed under a thematic area, such as tackling corruption or fighting sexual violence. The opportunities to be truly creative, and to be funded in a way that can really enable this creativity, are very, very few. Furthermore, trying to do monitoring and evaluation of art projects has to be one of the frustrating endeavors by donors.”
Pollicy’s partner list consists mainly of donors and funders in the Global North. Based on Pollicy’s experience over the past five years, what is one thing you would like to tell those donors and funders that work primarily with organizations in Africa?
“I would love for Global North-based organizations to not view organizations within Africa and the expertise that they hold as ‘local.’ There is a massive imbalance in power whereby Global North-based organizations can set up shop in Africa and run the show with little context or care, and establish themselves as experts. However, within this worldview, Africans can only be experts, if that, within their own community. One of the major accomplishments at Pollicy is that we are now global experts, conducting research in Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe. Our learnings and methodologies can be applied in other contexts and through these types of collaborations which could only be made possible by donors in the past, we can achieve so much more together.”
What are you most proud of?
“I’m proud of the breadth of feminist technology research that we have put out in our short existence and in pushing for these issues to be at the forefront of technology development, research, and deployment. My favorite projects, as an artist, are the ones that deal with art: painting murals across Kampala based on citizen data, creating an interactive fictional game on digital safety for women in East Africa, curating short stories on speculative fiction by young Africans, and when I can, creating the illustrations and visuals for our reports.”
According to the Pollicy Our Story video, your company’s next step is to go global. How does Pollicy successfully go global while still maintaining a strong connection to the communities that it serves and that drive its work?
“Pollicy has a hybrid team structure whereby half our team is based in Kampala, Uganda, and the other half are remote. We conduct a number of engagements with partner organizations in-country such as our annual event, DataFest Africa, through engagements with educational institutions, in rural areas, with government stakeholders, etc. As such, we have our feet firmly on the ground in Uganda, across Africa, and now, across the world.”
To learn more about Pollicy, check out its website and subscribe to its newsletter. Its recent research includes Encoded Biases and Future Imaginariesan—an examination of the relationship between AI and African women; Inclusion, Not Just An Add-On—a guide that reconsiders and reconceptualizes inclusive design practices; and Exploring the Future of Data Governance in Africa—a look at data stewardship methods.