November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Diversity in Apps | A Movement Grows

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diversity in apps

In late 2014, Sandhya Nankani and Kabir Seth, the founders of two independent app companies “committed to addressing the diversity gap in children’s digital media,” found themselves at the same conference. From a conversation that started that weekend, the two decided to “push the industry forward” to a greater commitment to diversity, and in 2015, Diversity in Apps (DIA) was born. School Library Journal spoke with Nankani about the group’s membership, mission, and plans.

How did you and Kabir Seth approach establishing a digital community focused on diversity? What were your first steps?

When Kabir and I met, we realized that we had a lot in common. We are both South Asian and grew up as children of immigrants with very little access to content—be it television, movies, or books—that reflected us and our experiences. As independent app producers, we were both also coincidentally creating children’s content that focused on storytelling, myths, and folktales. Kabir was interested in using the digital experience to merge narrative storytelling with physical and tangible puzzles such as tangrams. I was coming to app development after spending a number of years creating print and digital products in educational publishing. I was interested in figuring out ways to create pedagogically sound literacy experiences that celebrate play and honored diversity by serving as “sliding glass doors, windows, and mirrors” into children’s worlds. When I wrote a blog post for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center about my observations about the diversity gap in children’s digital content, I was struck by the immediate outpouring of responses from individuals in education and the media; it turned out that pockets of conversations on the subject were happening in silos, not in any sort of coordinated public fashion. So, Kabir and I reconnected and reached out to our networks, and others who were thinking about and working around this topic in children’s media. A group of us decided to take action.

In addition to content creators and developers, who are the other members of your group?

Our founding members come from a cross section of disciplines. They are media mentors and librarians, veterans of print and digital educational publishing, educators, researchers, and policy makers. (See our full team here.) And, we’re growing! What’s exciting about the interdisciplinary nature of our group is that it reflects the very nature of kids’ digital media. Digital content today is being created by so many people—including by parents and children—and in so many spaces. It’s also being consumed in many different environments—libraries, schools, homes, and community centers, just to name a few. Our goal is to bring all of these voices together to exchange and share ideas, and to move the industry forward in thinking about the concepts of diversity as in kids’ digital media in a deep and meaningful way.

Can you talk a bit about that mission?

Diversity in Apps is a grassroots coalition. Children’s content lives on and crosses over multiple platforms—TV, apps, websites, and games—so we have come to see our work around apps as the first step in a wider Children’s Media Diversity Initiative. Our mission is to raise awareness about the need for inclusive, equitable, and diverse children’s digital content. At the same time, we’re committed to being a pragmatic, hands-on group that identifies best practices for creating truly diverse products. We are also committed to recognizing producers, publishers, companies, and content creators that are already creating quality, innovative products in this realm.

One of the group’s goals is “articulating a definition of diversity.” Have you come up with a definition?

We started out with the definition that diverse apps for children must incorporate and represent people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities beyond the arena of special interest or niche products. But we also recognize that when talking about apps and other digital products, diversity is not just representation in content—that is, the importance of children seeing reflections of themselves and the world around them in the material they consume. It’s also about equity and access. We are painfully aware of the wide digital divide that impacts equitable access to technology. Among the many points in the recent report from The Joan Ganz Cooney Center,  “Getting a Read on the AppStore,” is “expert-awarded apps tend to cost $1-$2 more than top 50 paid apps, possibly perpetuating an ‘app gap’ whereby more affluent families will end up with higher quality apps.”  Any discussion about diversity in apps must take all of these factors into consideration. And, finally, we’re thinking about diversity as it relates to the production process and the teams that are creating, distributing, and marketing children’s content.

At the Tech With Kids conference last year in San Francisco, developers admitted to their need to “do more work on diversity.” In what specific areas did they feel they could improve?

Developers recognized that the communities lowest in income tend to have fewer books in their homes and fewer digital experiences that reflect them and their experiences. They discussed the need to create more content that crosses the divides and barriers of race, class, and gender. They also talked about the challenge of designing an app that is appealing to a wide audience—one that goes beyond class or race, and shared that parents are asking for content that speaks to the different learning styles, language abilities, and needs. Raul Gutierrez, the founder of Tinybop, Inc., spoke about the company’s Apps for Impact, which plans to give away free high-quality educational apps to Title 1 schools, and to libraries, Head Start programs, and community centers, so that there’s a generation of kids who will have access to, and can eventually build apps, using tools such as Hopscotch, Tynker, and The Foos that reflect their diverse experiences.

Are there hurdles creators and developers face in promoting diversity?

Diversity is an accepted need in the world of children’s publishing, and the dialogue happening there is actually shifting the landscape. But to achieve a wider commitment to creating diverse apps, we need research-based evidence that shows why and how diversity matters in early childhood in print and digital (including apps and games). For developers and creators, one of the biggest hurdles is discoverability. How do people find diverse products in the marketplace? Are there keywords that can be used across the industry—whether in existing review databases or in the marketplace itself—to support teachers and parents as they search for products that are mindful of diversity?

At Diversity in Apps, we applaud companies such as Toca Boca and Tinybop, which are actively designing for gender neutrality, and which bake diversity into the entire company, from hiring decisions to the production process. But more needs to be done on this front. As our founding member Kevin Clarke, who does lots of consulting for kids’ media companies, has shared, diversity is often considered at the end of the production process, instead of embedded at the beginning. Throwing “diversity sauce”—as he calls it—onto a product is not a solution. A goal of DIA is to get more companies to recognize both the social impact and ROI (return on investment) value of producing diverse apps and digital content.

The Diversity in Apps enewsletter, which was launched in late January, speaks to a broad community of interested parties—creators, developers, educators, and parents. What are your goals for the publication?

Our weekly newsletters are a curated roundup of the top stories that relate to diversity and children’s media. Our hope is that they will raise awareness of the many angles from which diversity impacts children’s content. We also hope that the newsletter will serve as a tool to raise awareness about the goals and work of DIA, to connect us to resources and other individuals and organizations working in this area, and, of course, to grow our membership. We imagine it as a two-way street.

What role do you envision for the educators in your group?

We had an enlightening #EdTechBridge Twitter chat last October, where we learned a great deal from educators about their use of educational technology, including apps, and their needs, definitions, and ideas about diversity. We’re eager to continue such conversations and to partner with educators on research projects, papers, presentations, curated lists, and more. Educators are on the front lines and have much to share with us in terms of what’s working, and most importantly, what they and children need and want to see. We’re fortunate that several of our founding members are educators. They bring a unique perspective to the table—connecting the dots between early childhood development, learning styles, and educational technology—and can help us collect research-based evidence of the value of diverse content in shaping self-perception.

In addition to the DIA enewsletter, what other resources, events, or initiatives do you have planned?

One of the first products that we’re excited about putting out later this year is a diversity checklist for digital producers to use during the development and production process that identifies milestones and matters to consider. We’re working on it in partnership with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, the organization that issued the report on Diverse Families and Media: Using Research to Inspire Design. On a personal level, I have started documenting the process of mindfully creating a diverse app over at Medium and will be writing about the connections between research about early childhood development, literacy, and equity, and the decisions we make as producers and developers.

DIA is also working on a selection tool for parents, librarians, and educators to use to evaluate children’s apps for diversity, and we’ll be reaching out to app reviewers such as Children’s Technology Review, Common Sense Media, School Library Journal, and Teachers with Apps to start conversations about how to incorporate this criteria into their existing frameworks for review.

We’re very interested in connecting with app distributors (Google Play Store, AppStore, etc.) to explore the ways in which diverse apps can be more easily discovered. I have started to curate collections (for example, apps for Chinese New Year) and will continue to write about my experience hunting for diverse kids apps. It has been quite an adventure! As a group, we will also be working on recognizing innovations in the field and figuring out ways in which we can be a clearinghouse for developers, parents, librarians, and teachers on apps for kids and other digital content. We’re also intrigued by the idea of putting out a tool such as the We Read Too app, which consolidates a database of diverse apps.

How can people learn more and/or participate in your community?

We had a great launch event with the Children’s Media Association in November, 2015, and are looking forward to and planning more panel discussions and conference panels over the course of the year. Folks can sign up at our website for updates or to reach out to us to volunteer. They can also follow us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/diversityinapps) and on Twitter (@diversityinapps) or subscribe to our weekly newsletter. If anyone is interested in helping out or has an idea for an event or a project, they can sign up to join our efforts on our website or email us at diversityinapps@gmail.com.

Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for featuring Diversity in Apps with lead co-founder Sandhya Nakani.