Gabriela Rios Landa, Head of Exploration, UNDP Accelerator Lab, Mexico

By Yun Xuan Poon

Women in GovTech Special Report 2021.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

The way I use technology, in a nutshell, is twofold: as a tool to explore and learn; and as a tool to enable people.

As the Head of Exploration of the Accelerator Lab UNDP Mexico, part of my role is to leverage multiple sources of data to gain a more comprehensive understanding of development challenges. This requires me to be on the lookout for new and unusual partners with whom we can collaborate. The insights that such explorations yield can then inform the design of experiments to find more suitable solutions and effect positive change.

On this front, I collaborated with a community of public interest technologists, civic tech innovators, Facebook and UNDP Mexico’s Gender Unit in a quantitative study focused on gender-based political violence in digital spaces.

It entailed the analysis of official Facebook pages of male and female candidates running for governorships in the 2021 Elections in Mexico, in search for gendered-based political violence. We published a report with recommendations to empower female candidates, for electoral authorities, political parties and for digital platforms.

What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?

I worked on a pilot that aims to create safer public spaces for women in Mexico City. First, we analysed various sources of digital data including socioeconomic, urban infrastructure, security equipment, and 911 reports. Next, we conducted fieldwork with the aim of identifying tangible, intangible, common and uncommon factors and practices that make for safer public spaces (to do so, we applied the data powered positive deviance method).

We are now processing the fieldwork data to design a set of interventions. I am very excited about this project because we are going to craft recommendations – informed by over 500 women – that can help government officials create holistic strategies to improve women’s right to use and occupy public spaces.

It has also been a joy to work on this because I could collaborate with and learn from people from various organisations (GIZ Mexico, GIZ Data Lab, UNDP Accelerator Labs, University of Manchester Centre for Digital Development) and disciplines (data scientists, geographers, designers, sociologists). Such collaborations always make for very insightful discussions.

What is one unexpected learning from 2021?

It’s related to how I think about the impact and contribution of my work, and to sum it up I’ll borrow a poem I love from Mary Oliver:

“Things take the time they take.
Don't worry.
How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?”

Sometimes it can be quite intimidating to confront oneself with the question: “What impact am I making?” Especially when a lot of the conversations in the field focus on producing tangible, fast results. But a lot of my work has to do with the intangible, slow changes – shifting minds and changing ways of doing things.

I try to remind myself to think in terms of seeds being planted. And it’s not from a place of complacency, but rather of cultivating patience and trust in the natural flow of things.

What’s your favourite memory from the past year?

First in-person re-encounters… with friends, family, colleagues, and with things that bring me joy – movie theaters, museums, restaurants, fieldwork…

What’s a tool or technique you’re excited to explore in 2022?

Alternate Reality Simulation. Some months ago, we tried it out in Mexico as part of UNDP’s Istanbul Innovation Days 2021 with the aim of “training the muscle” to deal with radical uncertainty.

We guided a conversation with colleagues and government officials, in which they needed to solve fictional emergencies affecting Mexico City in 2022. They played the part of high-level decision makers, accompanied by a digital interphase to serve as the negotiating table.

We want to explore this tool further as part of a collaboration with the government officials in charge of generating the resilient strategy of Mexico City’s boroughs with a gender perspective. I think it could be a very useful and didactic tool to exercise anticipatory decision-making.

What are your priorities for 2022?

I want to embed more moments of beauty into the work I do with others.

I enjoy reading about the creative process of artists, more specifically about their collaborative process – between actors, film directors, music composers, etc. One thing that always inspires me is when they recount those moments, as brief as they might be, when they feel awestruck by creating something together and bringing something real and beautiful into being.

Being in the public sector requires dealing with tough challenges, bureaucracies, and grim realities every day. ‘Moments of awestruck and beauty’ might sound superfluous to some, but I think that those moments can remind us of why we entered the public sector in the first place. They can come when we find an insight, design a new feature of a technology, or test a new service.

I want to be more mindful of the conditions I create when collaborating with others to help us quiet the noise of the day-to-day hurdles, and bring out those moments of creativity to keep us motivated and serve better.

Who are the thinkers and creators that inspire you?

I’m always inspired by the people who expand into multiple fields.

For example, Brian Eno, perhaps more widely known as a musician, recently contributed to the One-Minute City project initiated by Sweden’s Vinnova with design principles.

Another example is Robin Wall Kimmerer, who beautifully weaves her knowledge of the natural world with personal reflections about life. Some of her short essays in Gathering Moss have been my favorite reads of the year.

It reminds me of two things. One, that we can all contain multiple selves within, and we don’t have to constrain ourselves to just one field. And two, that as practitioners in the public sector we need to draw inspiration and generate knowledge from diverse voices and minds.

What gets you up in the morning?

First, coffee, and then the thought of finishing the day with a feeling of satisfaction.