Anjali Nayar: A storyteller that innovates for social change
In 2014-2015, Making All Voices Count supported the implementation of TIMBY - This Is My Backyard, a secure mobile reporting application to improve citizen reporting on what is happening to natural resources in rural Liberia.
We asked the founder of TIMBY Anjali Nayar about herself and where she draws her inspiration to innovatively shine a light on activities in areas from where stories and information do not usually emerge.
Tell me about yourself…
I’m a storyteller and technologist based in Nairobi and Montreal. I work on projects that break the boundaries of media, science, technology and design to create positive impact in the world.
I founded TIMBY (This Is My Backyard), a suite of digital tools that helps activists report, verify and tell stories safely.
My background is in documentary film, from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, environmental management from Oxford and remote sensing for earth observation, from the International Space University.
My newest documentary film “Silas” (TIFF 2017) profiles activist Silas Siakor and his network of citizen reporters, using TIMBY to expose land grabs and corruption in West Africa.
What is TIMBY about?
TIMBY (This is My Backyard) is a suite of digital tools to help groups report, investigate and share information about complex and sensitive issues such as human rights abuses or corruption, in a secure and efficient way.
We started this project in Liberia, where communities across the country had been collecting data related to land and forests, for over a decade, including during the Liberian War. Although some of this information had great impact, the turn-around time for reports was months long (after the damage was done) and most of the original media ended up lost on a shelf or virus-riddled computer.
Since January 2014, we have been collaborating with Liberian citizens - farmers, teachers and community leaders - living on the frontlines of the battle over forests.
What motivated you to come up with such an innovation?
I was working with the networks we designed the app with, as part of a film called “Silas”, that has just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2017. We were trying to understand and tell the narrative around how big land grabs happen. We hear the headlines in the news all the time – but how exactly does a country lease out 25% of its land to foreign companies, dispossessing millions of people (living on the same land) from their livelihoods. Does it happen overnight?
You could never be in communities when these issues struck – not only because companies wouldn’t dare act in this way when a big film crew was around, but also because you simply can’t predict and be everywhere at once (as an observer or monitor).
But communities would experience threats or pressure from companies and the government regularly and they had strong feelings about what was going on their ancestral land, it just wasn’t easy to get their voice out there to the world (and without geo-referenced, time-stamped evidence, the central government could just say they were not aware that this was happening in the field).
The major obstacles were logistical because of the lack of roads, power and network in most of rural Liberia. Furthermore, it’s really hard to manage data – to ensure that whatever documentation is collected, is databased (and doesn’t get lost on a virus-riddled computer).
TIMBY was designed out of this need – to make the collection and sharing of this data (to policy-makers, governors, media and legal assistance) easy, so communities and local organizations could focus on the real work.
What is your greatest strength and in what areas do you feel you could grow?
Most of my team say that the biggest thing they’ve learned from me is that there’s always a way. I guess I’d say that innovating in this landscape, plan A almost never works out, so you have to be agile, you have to think out of the box and you have to be able to learn from your mistakes (cause you will make them!).
I think I’m still learning a lot about scaling a start up. At the beginning your team is very small, and everyone is part of the core, you can mentor and be there for your whole team.
As you grow larger, it’s harder to be as present with each member of your team (and it can be a tough adjustment for your team), you have to make choices between doing (as a leader your workload just increases!) and leading, and that’s a tricky balance.
What change is TIMBY contributing too?
You can see some of the public work of the group in Liberia here.
In terms of impact, during the course of our work in Liberia, the group we were working with managed to get more than 60 forestry concessions cancelled, highlight millions of dollars of misspent county social development funds, and most recently unearth a 10.5 million dollar scandal, where corporate funding didn’t go through government coffers. There were many smaller wins, such as getting companies to sign MOUs to not encroach on their land, unearthing a new forestry scandal (CFMAs), etc. The group also used the reports and information in countless closed-door meetings with companies and government officials. The turnaround time for verified evidence during the life of the project went from months to weeks.
I think the most impressive proof of impact, however, is that the program in Liberia is still expanding, 2-3 years after our Making All Voices Count project ended. The number of trained users on the platform is 4x that which we had during the course of the Making All Voices Count project, and the group has expanded over geographic areas, has started incorporating women reporters and more.
When it comes to engaging with the group, here are few numbers:
- 400+ quality reports on dashboard
- 7 published stories (many more went straight through private channels)
- 107 community reporters engaged to date
- representing a catchment of 1 million people
Since December 2016, we have been scaling TIMBY for everything from health service delivery to environmental change. TIMBY is now in six languages (English, French, Indonesian, Spanish, Swahili and Arabic) and has projects across the developing world.
What are the challenges you have experienced so far?
We implemented our project from the ground-up, designing based on the work of the communities and civil society organizations we were interacting with. Our success was in the specific attention to detail for that one particular group, taking one very small step at a time until we achieved an end-to-end system (mobile app- dashboard – story outputs). But in this specific attention to detail, we didn’t put adequate attention to the next steps of scaling and internationalization.
If we did it all over again (knowing where we are now), we would have started with the big-picture at least in terms of the architecture of the system. It would have saved us 2 months of work and re-building to get the system ready for scale.
What are your plans for the future?
We want to grow TIMBY both in terms of numbers of groups but also topics of use. We’d like to hit the critical point where we are providing the service of linking groups on the ground with those who have a platform for reach, and groups with the platform with content they cannot otherwise reach on the ground. We are building in RSS functionality and an API to ensure this possibility.
What is your message to other ambitious innovators?
Do something you believe in. It’s a lot of work, so it really has to be something you are passionate about. And if you put everything into it, it’s likely to turn out. Just keepbelieving. That’s the first step. Then keep hustling!
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