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18 Vaccine Experts, Including Top FDA Scientists, Publish Review in The Lancet Saying Current Evidence Doesn’t Support Need for COVID-19 Vaccine Boosters for the Fully Vaccinated

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/09/2021 - 1:55am in

Top international vaccine experts contend current evidence does not support a need for boosters for the fully vaccinated general population at this time and recommending instead directing doses to previously unvaccinated populations.

Waste Watch: Russia, UK Adopt Single Use Plastics Bans

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 06/09/2021 - 6:55am in

Russia and the UK take limited steps to slow the plastics juggernaut.

Allow Least Developed Countries to Develop

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 05/09/2021 - 11:55pm in

Optimal economic policy for LDCs requires their goverments to resist aping Washington and OECD fads.

Report: Fashion Kills Africa’s Rivers

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 23/08/2021 - 6:55am in

Water Waste report discusses how textile production pollutes Africa’s rivers - and what must be done to correct this fashion problem.

South African Women Are Reclaiming Their Voices in the Media

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/08/2021 - 6:00pm in

Two years on, Kathy Magrobi still vividly recalls grimacing at the media coverage leading up to the 2019 South African national and provincial elections. 

“Every time I turned on the radio, every time I opened the newspaper, it was just… the same names,” she remembers. “It had the same key messages and they were quoted, time after time. I just kept hearing these (men’s) voices.” Even on issues that exclusively concerned women and other marginalized groups, men were presented as the experts. 

Over half of South Africa’s population is women, and despite making up 55 percent of registered voters, four out of five people mentioned in election articles by three of the country’s biggest news websites were men, a Media Hack 2019 report found. 

The problem, according to Magrobi, is simple: “When it’s missed in the news, it’s missed in policy.” The fewer women’s voices are heard, the fewer inclusive policies are implemented. 

kathyKathy Magrobi

Deadline pressures and journalists’ lack of contact with marginalized groups help explain why this happens, says Zandile Bangani, a journalist with South African media outfit New Frame

“What then happens,” says Bangani, “[is] we end up circulating a voice, and that’s dangerous because it limits our understanding of an issue to a particular narrative or voice.” 

Four decades ago, American sociologist Gaye Tuchman documented what she dubbed women’s “symbolic annihilation” from the media. She noted that women, when not portrayed in traditional roles as homemakers or mothers, are shown in clerical and other “pink-collar” jobs. 

In 2021, this practice of “erasure” hasn’t changed, says Luthando Ngema, a lecturer at the University of Kwazulu-Natal’s Media and Cultural Studies. Women who were once political activists and played pivotal roles during South Africa’s battle against apartheid “have been put in the shadow of their husbands — or the media portrays them that way,” she says. 

Even when they are contacted by journalists, some women decline to act as sources, held back by “impostor syndrome,” an issue that research shows particularly affects women of color. This idea that women should not present themselves as authorities is deeply rooted in South African families and culture, says Cheryl Hlabane, an activist and change agent. “[In South Africa] we are not meant to be in certain spaces… That has been engraved in our minds.”

Building out

Inspired by Women Also Know Stuff, a U.K. organization that curates a database of women experts in political science, Kathy Magrobi created Quote This Woman+,  abbreviated as QW+. The plus sign represents any expert ignored or misconstrued by mainstream news narratives, whether because of disability, sexual or gender orientation, or something else. 

QW+ makes it easy for journalists and news producers to find a vetted expert to speak with. Users can filter their queries through the database or contact the platform handlers directly. 

“We kind of plug that gap when we say we’re going to put in all of the time, we’re going to look for people, we’re going to approach them, we’re going to make sure that they are in fact experts,” says Jordan Magrobi, Kathy’s daughter and QW+’s database manager. 

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QW+ was built on sacrifice, family and selflessness. Kathy Magrobi’s husband, Bruce Gordon, works as the organization’s accountant, and Erin, her other daughter, designed QW+’s graphics. Magrobi launched the endeavor with mentorship provided by an intensive media accelerator at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. For this, she travelled 480 kilometers each way every two weeks to the university from her base in the tiny midlands village of Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal. 

“At 50, I wasn’t looking to start a nonprofit organization,” she says. “Starting a nonprofit is like any startup. It’s a huge tussle. It takes a lot of energy.” 

As a middle-aged white woman in South Africa, Magrobi thought twice about launching a feminist startup. “I felt it was wrong for a privileged, white woman to be starting this organization. I knew that I had to do my best to confront my own unconscious biases.” (Perhaps ironically for a person spearheading an effort to amplify women’s voices, Magrobi has trigeminal neuralgia, a condition that makes speaking painful.) 

In the runup to the 2019 elections, Magrobi built a board of directors who could give QW+ access to other “important people, both at expert level and at community level. And then I used them to help me find my first experts.” 

The database was built out like a pyramid scheme. Newly added experts were asked to refer at least five other experts in fields important to the election, such as education, corruption, crime, housing and health. “It was amazing,” marvels Magrobi. “Interest was instantaneous.” The platform launched in time for the election with 40 experts in 25 categories. 

Interestingly, initial queries came from foreign journalists. The New York Times, Al Jazeera and the BBC all quoted QW+ experts. Only after that did South African publications like the Mail and Guardian begin to utilize the database. Once they did, it made things easier, says Simon Allison, the Mail and Guardian’s Africa editor. “They’re really responsive and have helped us find brilliant interviewees on the most obscure topics. It means we have no excuse not to quote women in every story.”

After the elections, a South Africa Media Innovation Program (SAMIP) grant enabled QW+ to expand with new volunteers. And as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the country, a Covid-specific database launched with eight women experts. (Now it has over 100.) 

In total, QW+ now has 513 experts across 49 categories. About a thousand journalists receive its biweekly newsletter. Allison, who is also the founder of The Continent, a pan-African publication, says reporters across both publications where he works use the QW+ database frequently. 

“It’s inspiring to us. [The Continent] is currently in the process of formalizing our pitching guidelines, and we will be insisting that at least one woman is quoted in every story,” he says. “It’s extraordinarily important to have a balanced newsroom. Every journalist has blind spots, and without a genuinely diverse newsroom, those blind spots are all too apparent in a publication, which then fails in its most basic task of explaining the world around us.”

Getting the details right

In January, the South African government sought to amend the country’s identity laws to include a third legal gender, offering individuals an option outside of the gender binary. 

As fierce public debate over the proposal spilled into media coverage, QW+ experts from the LGBTQ community were tapped by journalists and news producers.

Kellyn Botha, a trans woman and QW+ expert, granted a number of media requests.

Kellyn Botha

“The media as a whole does not always do a great job in speaking about trans issues,” she says, “and I felt [joining QW+] was at least one way of offering myself as a resource to contribute to better trans-related content in the media.”

The name of the platform has at times alienated potential participants, especially cisgender men from other marginalized groups. Magrobi remembers a rejection from a Black man who lives with a disability because the platform’s name implies it is for women exclusively. Situations such as these have given rise to thoughts of a name change, but Magrobi resists the idea because she says that QW+ is a feminist organization first. Also, there are experts from marginalized communities whose area of focus differs from the reason for their marginalization.

Training and survival

Maintaining the database and making experts available is half of what QW+ does. “What we do is also a lot of media training,” says Jordan. “So, instead of just having somebody go onto the database, if they don’t feel very comfortable, we can say, ‘We are going to take you through another short media training thing and just uplift you and empower you, so you can be confident with speaking to the media.”

In April, QW+ launched Quote Me On That (QMOT), a paid service that trains women in media engagement, overcoming imposter syndrome and, through a partnership with the Mail and Guardian, op-ed writing. This month, activist Hlabane and media veteran Paula Fray spoke on impostor syndrome at a QMOT webinar. During the previous municipal election in 2016, only 17.5 percent of people quoted in news reports were women, per a Media Monitoring Africa report. The 2021 municipal elections will be held on October 27. In South Africa, municipalities are the grassroots of government, where local ward councillors exert control over water, electricity and land use. Whose voice is heard during such elections is critical. 

Funding remains QW+’s biggest hurdle. Aside from the SAMIP grant, revenue is generated through donations, crowdfunding, media/gender training for organizations and consultancies, and more recently, QMOT. 

With three more volunteers joining the team, the SAMIP grant runs out in four months. Prospective investors are still recovering from Covid-19 setbacks, hence Magrobi and her team are on the lookout. 

“We’ve got four months to pull a rabbit out of a hat. That’s the bottom line,” she says. She’s holding out hope that QW+ will land a corporate sponsor or donor to support their work at diversifying the narrative in the upcoming elections — and beyond. 

The post South African Women Are Reclaiming Their Voices in the Media appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

African Faith Leaders to Gates Foundation: Drop ‘African Green Revolution’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/08/2021 - 7:50pm in

"When it comes to the climate, African faith communities are urging the world to think twice before pushing a technical and corporate farming approach."

Beware of World Economic Forum/Gates UN Food Systems Summit Trojan Horse

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 26/07/2021 - 5:46pm in

The Gates Foundation and the WEF are steamrolling normal UN processes as part of a campaign to discredit sound agroecology practices.

Hey Siri, Learn to Speak Kinyarwanda

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/07/2021 - 6:00pm in

“Alexa, kuki utumva Kinyarwanda?”

That question — “Alexa, why don’t you understand Kinyarwanda?” — would be easily recognized by some 12 million Kinyarwanda speakers in Rwanda, eastern Congo and parts of southern Uganda. But when directed at any one of the world’s three most popular voice assistants — Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant — the response is always polite yet perplexed: Sorry, I don’t understand…

That’s because, while Africa boasts over 1,000 native languages, each with its own unique accents and speech patterns, the three bestselling voice assistants can’t respond to a single one of them. It’s a blind spot that cuts off much of a continent from one of the fastest growing digital technologies there is, in part because African consumers represent a relatively minor share of the voice assistant market.

common voiceParticipants at an ideation hackathon in Kigali for Common Voice, hosted by Mozilla and GIZ. Credit: GIZ

But just because a particular group of language speakers isn’t buying Echo Dots by the millions doesn’t mean that that language can’t be integrated into voice assistant programs. The ideal situation, according to Chenai Chair, special advisor for Africa innovation at the Mozilla Foundation, is “to be able to have voice data that can be used by anyone” — voice samples from thousands upon thousands of people speaking these languages in their native tongues.

Often, such large reams of voice data are proprietary, held by a few large for-profit corporations and used to train machine-learning algorithms. This makes it difficult for smaller developers, researchers and startups to get in on the voice-recognition technology game. 

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To remedy this, in 2017, Mozilla, the non-profit tech company that created the Firefox internet browser, launched an open-source initiative called Common Voice. Aimed at democratizing voice data, Common Voice makes it easy to donate your “voice” — your language, accent, intonations and speech patterns — to a publicly accessible database. 

Donating is simple. On Common Voice’s homepage, there are two options: “speak” and “listen.” Clicking on the former ushers contributors to a page where they can record audio samples. The contributor is given sentences to read aloud, with the option to play them back before submitting. The “listen” option allows participants to validate the accuracy of already donated voices on the platform.

This minimalistic user interface requires little technical ability. Participants don’t even need to register or identify themselves. Essentially, Common Voice is crowdsourcing the everyday speech of thousands, and then asking thousands of others to verify that those contributions sound correct.

common voice1,700 hours of Kinyarwanda voice data has been donated by over 840 contributors, making it one of the fastest growing languages on the Common Voice platform. Credit: GIZ

The platform includes 90 different languages including two other Indigenous African languages: Luganda, spoken in Uganda, and Kabyle, a Berber language spoken in Algeria. The multi-language public domain holds more than 9,000 hours of voice data in these languages, with more than 166,000 people worldwide contributing to the project as of May 2021.

A deluge of data

Kinyarwanda was added to the Common Voice platform two years after it launched — its first native African language. In February 2019, Mozilla and the German development agency GIZ co-hosted an ideation hackathon in Kigali. The goal was simple: To come up with a concept that would encourage native Kinyarwanda speakers to donate their voice data to the Common Voice project. 

The winning concept centered on an idea familiar to all Rwandans: “Digital Umuganda.” Umuganda is a unique national holiday that takes place in Rwanda on the last Saturday of every month. On this day, people across the country gather in their communities and work together to build physical infrastructure like schools, roads and health care facilities. The idea behind “Digital Umuganda” was to adapt this concept to build a different kind of infrastructure — voice data — every month at universities, tech hubs and community spaces. 

“It was more like gathering people from different universities and telling them the benefits of voice technology in their native languages.” says Remy Muhire, Common Voice Kinyarwanda’s community lead. 

common voice“It is a challenging task but good quality data would give us a huge advantage.” Credit: GIZ

According to Muhire, prospective contributors were sold on the idea of inclusive technology and innovation, often by personalizing the issue. For instance, contributors would be told: “Imagine your grandma speaking to her feature phone to switch on the light outside instead of actually moving? Or running a Google search in your native language, or talking to Siri in your local language?” 

The Digital Umuganda messaging appears to have worked — so far, 1,700 hours of Kinyarwanda voice data has been donated by over 840 contributors, making it one of the fastest growing languages on the Common Voice platform. Cultivating this large volume of source material is critical to making a language work correctly on a voice assistant device — machine learning requires lots of training. All the data that Common Voice collects, not to mention the platform itself, are open source and free for anyone to use, from scientists working on linguistic projects to large for-profit corporations.

The Mozilla Foundation’s Chenai Chair emphasizes that contributors’ privacy is a priority — the data collected from them is both minimal and anonymous. Certain basic types of information, like age and gender, help the project ascertain how a certain demographic speaks. While working in the community, says Chair, “Whatever data is collected, we ensure the safety and security parameters so that it doesn’t end up being misused.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, contributions to the Common Voice project have moved entirely online. While this removes the hassle of organizing physical events, it highlights issues of internet access and affordability. Pre-pandemic, spaces used for data collection events were equipped with strong wifi connections. Now, some would-be participants are stymied by poor or expensive connectivity issues. Also, lack of supervision or in-person instruction can lead to poor quality data donations. 

“Working in NLP [natural language processing] for low-resource languages is a challenging task in and of itself, because of a lack of data,” says Kathleen Siminyu, Mozilla’s Kiswahili machine learning engineer. “I will say that data quality is a key factor that does not get as much ‘airtime’ as data quantity.” 

“It is a challenging task but good quality data would give us a huge advantage, which is why how we engage with the communities at the point of data collection will probably be the most important step of this entire pipeline.” 

As it compiles data on languages long neglected by big tech, Common Voice is aiming to avoid the mistakes that contribute to the growing problem of AI bias. For instance, voice recognition tends to work better for men than for women, and often struggles to understand people with accents varying from those considered standard. 

“From a common voice perspective, what we are doing is thinking about it from a design perspective which will include ensuring we have representative datasets or data samples that represent both men and women,” Chair says. Inclusivity, she says, must be fundamental to the process, “from design to collection to implementation.”

The post Hey Siri, Learn to Speak Kinyarwanda appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

A Report from Sierra Leone: Covid-19 Has Helped People Understand the Vital Connection Between Energy and Health

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/06/2021 - 8:23pm in

Sierra Leone so far has had some Covid success despite low vaccination rates, and it illustrates the challenges poor countries face.

The Pandemic Is Us (But Now Mostly Them)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 21/06/2021 - 6:30pm in

The pandemic is largely to be over in the Global North, at least among the vaccinated...or so it seems.