Ask the community first: how not to be a technocrat

Don Rodney Ong Junio is one of those people who are optimistic and positive because they know what they are doing. Currently working on the gender digital divide and on empowering migrant domestic workers and victims of human trafficking with technology at the United Nations University in Macau SAR, China,  Junio speaks of young researchers understanding the importance of leveraging the prestige of institutions.

Hailing from the Philippines, Junio had always been interested in the digital gap, its impact on those without access to technology and the ability of technology to empower communities. His early experience working with schools in remote parts of his native country had shown that input of the local community is vital in taking technology to the grassroots. Without learning from the lived experience of those living in the grassroots, technocrats might miss the underlying conditions that plague a community. Junio said that without addressing these issues, attempting to fix the symptoms leads to failure.

“Sometimes a technocratic approach is not the right one. When I was a student in the Philippines, I was involved in a project that provided computers to schools in remote parts of the country. One of the principals asked me what she would do if the computers broke down because she has no way of getting it fixed. This is when I realized, as a very young man, that we need to ask the community first and we have to respect their agency.”

These lessons, learned in a remote village in the Philippines, have stuck with Junio and have been the guiding forces of his work. It is these lessons and his desire to help communities who have not been able to join the technological train that took Junio to S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore and Kyoto University, Japan and to the lucrative field of business consulting and back to research.

Currently attached to the United Nations University’s  Computing and Society Unit, Junio is working on several projects that he believes would do a lot to bridge the digital gap faced by women of the region and human security of a large number of migrant domestic workers and victims of human trafficking.

“We have estimated that 250 million fewer women have access to the internet than men and if women lag behind men in what is an increasingly tech-driven society, this would mean increasing marginalization.

“What is worse is that since our data on the digital divide is abysmal, the number of women without access to the internet can be much higher. The data doesn’t also take into account the fact whether the women have autonomy when it comes to accessing the internet. So the data might be actually hiding issues of control,” he said.

Junio is also working on a paper on the use of psychosocial support for victims of human trafficking and improving the human security of migrant domestic workers through technology. Pointing that it is human traffickers that seem to use technology to their advantage, Junio states that there are examples of technology empowering victims of human trafficking, especially those subject to sex trafficking. “For example, women who have been victims of sex trafficking have been given opportunities to work at BPOs and that has done wonders for empowering them,” he said.

However, Junio points out that what matters for those who want to make a difference is not the amount of research they publish but the impact their work would have on the real world. Affecting change requires one to expand out of the academic circle, where researchers are comfortable, and to talk to policymakers, businessmen and other actors who are looking to further their agendas. This can prove to be quite a challenge for young researchers who have not made a name for themselves.

“There are certain things one can do to overcome this. One of these techniques that I have used with success is leveraging the prestige of the institutions that I am affiliated with to convince stakeholders that I am worth listening to.

“Sometimes the fact that you had gone to a particular university or that you are attached to the UN helps makes people stop and listen to you. You have to use this opportunity to make an impression and build connections.”

His six-month internship at LIRNEasia has taught him a lot in moving out of the ivory tower of academia and engaging with the real world.

The internship allowed him to work on a paper on broadband policy which he presented at CPRsouth and also to an industry audience and Junio has not looked back ever since. “The work I did in broadband policy and my exposure to industry figures gave me a lot of confidence in affecting change in the real world because now I know how those who have the power to affect things think,” he said.

Junio also advises young researchers to be current, read as much as possible on new trends and to be connected to a like-minded community. Not only does this keep you up to date and provide you with a support network but it also helps you to identify trends that one can tap into.

“You need to keep a lookout and grab windows of opportunity. The burden of being updated and grabbing opportunities lies with you.

“For example, I was working on broadband circa 2010 and because I was keeping an eye out for what’s happening, I realized that there was an increased interest in broadband in many countries. I used this as an opportunity to present my research and it struck a chord.”

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