Q & A with Heather Ford: Makmende, Web Ethnography and Ostrich

Heather Ford was recently selected as one of the 10 most influential women in science and technology in Africa by IT News Africa. Andrew Rens caught up with her for a Q & A session.

AR: What have you done with your life since you and I met on a misty day in the Stanford Law School canteen to discuss starting Creative Commons South Africa?

HF: That was eight years ago! And it changed my life! I was a fellow at the Reuters Digital Vision Fellowship Program at Stanford at the time. I spent the year working on conflict management tools and designing better ways to engage with Creative Commons’ growing international community. I loved the Bay Area but was determined to launch the project in SA, so I went back at the end of my fellowship, and started working full time on a bunch of projects to explore Creative Commons in Africa. After being on the board of Creative Commons’ new international startup, iCommons, I took the job of Executive Director in 2005 and worked on that amazing project for the next three years, meeting incredible people around the world who were really charting a new way forward for global collaborative projects including copyright reform — a particularly sticky subject.

AR: You’ve recently completed grad school at the legendary UC Berkeley School of Information. What was your motivation in going back to the academy for a few years?

HF: I started to re-think everything in my last year at iCommons. I started realising that I needed to better understand why Creative Commons wasn’t the always the best solution to tackling information inequality and the real effect of technological solutions on society – both good and bad. I think this corresponded with a general malaise among some of us in the global ICT community where we were starting to realise that the Internet wasn’t always “revolutionary” and definitely not always positive and that a healthy dose of realism was in order.

AR: What was the geekiest thing that you learned?

HF: Hmmm. I learned to count in binary and write Python programs, but that’s the traditional geeky stuff. I’m trying to extend the term “geeky” (it is one of my life goals) and so I’d say that learning about how people talked about new technology historically and how we tend to make the same assumptions (and mistakes) about the effect of technology on society over and over again was pretty geeky and makes for very, very entertaining dinner party talk (among geeks, that is).

AR: Who is Makmende and why was he too big for Wikipedia?

HF: Makmende is a Kenyan superhero who was embodied in a great music video by the Narobi-based band, Ha-He which became known as Kenya’s first Internet meme. A couple of Kenyans tried to make a Wikipedia page about the meme, but were continuously blocked. It made for a good story. And so I helped tell it. (And there will be another installment early next year!)

AR: Post grad school you landed a position with Ushahidhi/Swift River, how did you do that?

HF: That is a weird story actually. I saw the job posting for an web ethnographer and applied, thinking that it would be a long shot. Jon Gosier (then director of SwiftRiver, a project of Ushahidi) interviewed me soon afterwards and said to me: this will sound strange but it was your essay (about Makmende) that inspired us to get an ethnographer on the team. I then ululated and forgot my tough girl negotiation techniques and accepted on the spot. The project is actually to study how Wikipedians choose which sources to accept.

I knew Ory and Erik before they started Ushahidi and I’ve always loved what they’ve done, so it was great to be able to join them on this new adventure. Plus, the team is amazing. It’s incredible to be working for an African outfit again.

AR: Web ethnography?

HF: Ethnographers are researchers who are basically committed to studying the context in which people use technology. Whereas a lot of design research takes users out of their context (watching them use a software product in a testing room at the corporate headquarters, for example), ethnographers will go into the community and try to understand exactly how the artefacts are embedded into social and cultural contexts. It can be a very expensive, time-consuming way of getting results that can be applied to new software but it can also yield incredible results. I personally think that it’s really necessary when you’re designing products for use in developing countries where the infrastructure etc makes the experience so different for users outside of the bubble. A bunch of companies like Intel, Microsoft and Nokia are employing more and more ethnographers and it’s a really growing field in the technology space.

AR: Tell us about one of the projects that you are working on?

HF: Something I’m working on this week is looking at how Wikipedians critique and verify sources that others bring to the encyclopedia as citations. I’ve been analysing articles and talk pages on ‘hummus’ in English, Hebrew and Arabic and working out the story of how the MediaWiki technology is influencing the kinds of discussions that are happening, which problems are policy related and which are technology-related, and what alternative structures might do to community dynamics. Fascinating stuff! (at least I think so)

AR: You currently work from home in Oakland (in the San Francisco Bay area) but I hear it has its hazards.

HF: Ok, so I love Oakland. People who live here really love it. It reminds me of Melville: dodgy but so full of character. But I’m surrounded by crazy people – crazy people who scream bloody murder at 9.30am in the morning. And then there’s the guy screeching a bad song (bad singing and vloekworde) outside the apartment building at 2am and the hoard of teenagers who used the steps of the building to conduct their Sunday afternoon skateboard competition. I’m new here, so I mostly just sit quietly and wait for someone else to complain. I’m getting the feeling that everyone else is doing this too.

AR: What do you miss about South Africa?

HF: Simple, really: I miss that feeling in your stomach when you’re home. Where everything smells, looks and tastes familiar. I miss Woolies, ostrich and Sunday roasts.

Since both interviewee and interviewer co-founded Creative Commons South Africa this article is licensed under a Creative Commons license.
Creative Commons License
Q&A with Heather Ford: Makmende,Web Ethnography and ostrich by Andrew Rens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 South Africa License.

Image: Joi Ito



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