Rosa Akbari is a humanitarian technologist. She deploys digital technologies for crisis response, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Most recently she was a Senior Advisor in Technology for Development at Mercy Corps, and before that has worked with organizations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Dimagi, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).
Our conversation with Rosa is also a case study on the use of digital identities, cash programming, and the interplay of machine interoperability with human trust, in times of crisis. Rosa shares the story of how her family left the Middle East, and how she couldn’t resist going back. We talk about setting up Wi-Fi hotspots in Haiti, digital identities in Iraq, and digital vouchers in the Central African Republic (CAR). We explore the design challenges of working with both low literacy and low numeracy populations. Through this journey, we hear some familiar themes re-emerge, such as the importance of watching, listening, and learning from the local context. And how crucial it is to respect local knowledge and institutions, in order to make change that lasts.
- rakbari.com is Rosa’s personal home on the internet
- Mercy Corps: Most recently, Rosa was a Senior Advisor in Technology for Development at Mercy Corps
- The International Rescue Committee (IRC): Rosa was previously a Technical Advisor in ICT for Livelihoods with IRC.
- David Birch: Rosa gives a shout-out to David Birch as a thought leader in the space of digital currency. David is co-founder of Consult Hyperion.
- Rest of World: Rosa recommends this technology blog as “a blog for people that are listening to this podcast”. It covers the impact of technology “beyond the Western bubble”. One compelling read is the story of how the tech startup HaitiPay did everything right, but still got crushed.
- In the Light of What We Know: A Novel: Rosa call this “still my favorite book.” It is the non-linear story of a man and his connections with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
- VSAT and BGAN technology can provide internet to most parts of the world, even off the regular power or internet grid, using satellite communication, but at a very high cost. This is a common communication device used in humanitarian response, and the technology Rosa deployed in Haiti.
- NetHope is a consortium that specializes in improving IT connectivity in developing countries and areas affected by disaster. Rosa’s early work in Haiti drew inspiration from the kind of work NetHope does.
- Aadhaar: As Rosa and I are talking about digital identities and the role of government, she mentions the Aadhaar ID in India as an example of a government-led “societal platform” for citizen IDs.
- “The hostage situation”: Rosa mentions how her family was the victim of discrimination in the United States, particularly after “the hostage situation”. This was the holding of 52 American diplomats in Tehran from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981.