[Civic street art in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Kelly Zhang]
What motivated your interest to join GOV/LAB?
I like GOV/LAB’ s mixed methods approach to examining important problems. It’s impressive to see a space where a project that develops a machine learning algorithm to grade U.S. local governments on openness and a project that uses qualitative interviews to assess to importance of funerals in Tanzania can equally thrive. The close collaboration between researchers and organizations also attracted me to GOV/LAB’s work. The wide scope of partners and projects really illustrates to me the range of problems that GOV/LAB is able to contribute to. It’s neat to see a project that works with the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office to assist inmates with mental health and substance use disorders in Massachusetts alongside a project that works with Twaweza to improve citizen engagement in a single-party dominant system in Tanzania. I value being able to adapt expertise across geographies and methodologies to address important social issues, and GOV/LAB embodies this ethos to me.
What was your research focus at Stanford?
My research at Stanford focused on voter poverty and politician corruption in Kenya from a political economy perspective. During the summer of 2011, while I was working as a research assistant in Kenya, I attended a citizen report card launch that the National Taxpayers Association held in Kerugoya where citizens were fervently demanding accountability for missing projects and projects with misused funds. This initiated my interest in understanding why politician corruption tends to persist in emerging democracies, even though voters clearly dislike it. This intellectual pursuit took me through a wide range of experiences. I regularly spent my summers and then some in Kenya, interviewing villagers, local officials, and politicians about their perspectives on politics through quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews. I learned about theories of voting and legislator behavior from scholars in African and American politics, to better understand the similarities and differences between contexts. In addition to my own department, I also found wonderful communities of economists to learn from at Berkeley, Stanford, and the London School of Economics, and a great set of colleagues at the Working Group on African Political Economy (WGAPE).
What new governance research are you excited to explore at GOV/LAB?
I am particularly excited to explore the emerging space of civic technology. As information and communications technology (ICT) advances and scales, so does the impact of these tools on society and politics. During my time in Kenya, I witnessed firsthand the rapid adoption of social media amongst politicians and urban voters as a means of sharing and spreading information. Living the U.S. and coming from Silicon Valley, it’s hard to ignore the effects of these evolving technological platforms on politics and on our everyday lives. The spread of misinformation and fake news is a serious problem in the U.S. and in Kenya. Moreover, the way that we consume and disseminate information has dramatically changed, but we don’t have a great understanding as to the impact of these technologies on political mobilization and discourse. I think that GOV/LAB is uniquely poised at MIT to work closely with social enterprises, nonprofits, and government agencies to examine these issues, and I really look forward to working with partners internal and external to MIT.