Development Theory

Time to Ideate!

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 05/29/2015 - 19:21

Pivot-Twist-Dev takes the classic "pivot-twist" approach for idea pitches of taking a familiar concept and twisting it in a new way to the international development space. You might get ideas like "IT'S LIKE TINDER, BUT FOR NATURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT" or "IT'S LIKE FITNESS TRACKERS, BUT FOR SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP." Are they good? Only a pilot project could possibly tell.

You're welcome?

The promises of a decentralized currency: Think Locally and Buy Globally?

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 01/27/2014 - 10:58

I once rented a part of a house that had been, well, not fully cleaned out from the previous occupants. It was a house full of hackers that had been variously occupied by friends and friends-of-friends for almost a decade as they passed through Austin on their way from or to new lives, which is to say, it had, well, "character".

One of the odder things left behind by the previous inhabitants was a literal pile of Final Fantasy boxes, completely intact save for the all-important registration codes. A bit of digging uncovered a fascinating tale of cross-border, tax- and fee-free value transfer. The former occupant, let's call him "Bob" was engaged in a business proposition with a colleague based in South Korea, let's call her "Alice." Whatever version of the RPG Final Fantasy had just been released in the States (only). This had proved very difficult to pirate, causing a huge untapped demand in Korea. Koreans, however, had been happily hacking away at another RPG game which was only just now catching on Stateside. So, Bob would tear off and destroy these registration codes, emailing the codes themselves to Alice in Korea. Alice, in exchange, would provide Bob powerful and rare in-game items for the newly-popular game - these were of less value to the Korean market, as it was saturated with players and therefore items, but there was no arbitrage market into the States -- before Alice and Bob, at least. Bob could then sell these on online grey markets for such items, effectively creating a way for both Alice and Bob to profit (rather lucratively, from my understanding) from local markets, and transfer value across borders without incurring bank costs, wire fees, or, for that matter, taxes. This setup lasted for as long as both were able to extract value from the arbitrage process, but obviously wasn't able to scale or even easily re-adapt to new opportunities.

With the rise and increasing stability of bitcoin as an actual contender for a digital currency, the global market suddenly starts looking a lot more local.

Distributed Solutions for Distributed Attacks

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 10/21/2013 - 17:50

Google has been making headlines with their shiny Project Shield which wraps PageSpeed with other tools to defend sites against denial of service attacks. The history of the denial of service, however, runs deep, and underlines that no centralized response to it will ever be able to cost-effectively scale against a distributed attack.

Let's rewind back to the 90s. Denial of service was a very, very different thing then - it was a tool for free expression, not one used to mute dissenting opinions as it is today.
In the dot-com boomtimes of the late 90s, I was absolutely fascinated by the digital protests that sprung up in reaction to Mexico's treatment of the Zapatista Movement. Floodnet was an activist art project by the Electronic Disturbance Theater. Floodnet was simply a website you could visit and it would direct your browser to constantly reload pages on the website of the Mexcian government. In addition to overloading the website with thousands of requests from you and our fellow programmers, you could add in a political message with each page load, to force the government's server to fill their log files with messages like "human rights not found."

"The FloodNet application of error log spamming is conceptual Internet art. This is your chance to voice your political concerns on a targeted server. [...] The server may respond to your intentional mistake with a message like: "human_rights not found on this server." So by creatively selecting phases, you can make the server voice your concerns. It may not use the kind of resources that the constant reloading uses (FloodNet automatically does that too), but it is sassy conceptualism and it invites you to play with clever statements while the background applet is running." (via

Floodnet used DoS attacks to protest the Mexican Government
Floodnet used DoS attacks to protest the Mexican Government

This original "denial of service" attack was seen as the digital mirror of a classic "sit-in" protest. It was a way for a David to strike back at a Goliath through technology. However, this, ahem, "sassy" political activism began an arms race that today is dominated by Goliaths alone. Instead of a tool of protest, denial of service attacks are today tools of retribution and ways to mute dissenting voices. They are massively automated and distributed, and are run not by rowdy bands of dissidents, but by well-organized for-hire groups ( and even from government infrastructures.

The only defense, so far, has been equally massive, and centralized, commercial services. This is a growing industry with its own round of disruptive innovators all to itself. This current business innovation is helping to move from the monolithic services protecting online infrastructures at high costs to a more scalable model, with services that smaller websites can benefit from. Still, back-end models are the same - providing shelter from DDoS attacks by having sufficient servers and bandwidth to absorb whatever their proprietary tools and filters cannot outright block.

Open source models to fight back have been conspicuous in their absence - until now.

The Deflect Project, created by the technology collective based out of Montreal and Dublin, is responding to that gap. They focus on providing protection for activists and journalists around the world, who are subject to DDoS attacks from those who disagree with their views all the way to their own governments. Thanks to grant funding, Deflect is able to offer their services for free to independent media sites, NGOs and non-profits -- but the technology model under the hood is the real game-changer.

Stop doing Technology for Good So Badly.

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 04/12/2013 - 09:29

I've been reflecting on some of the challenges I've faced across multiple organizations trying to leverage the power of technology to create positive social change. This reaches way back to my work as a Peace Corp volunteer, up through grad school, my time as a contributing editor at OLPCNews, and through multiple NGOs balancing tech, impact, and budgets.

Obviously, there's no definite one-size-fits all approach to implementing technology in any sector, much less the world of the international NGO that stretches from hip online platforms to how to best use dusty Nokia feature-phones.

Here are the principles I've come up with to date. I took these to Twitter in a lively discussion, and want to expound upon them a bit more:

  1. Build for sustainability. Minimize what you have to build yourself, and leverage existing platforms

    This means giving strong preferences to open source platforms or at least existing services that meet a set of criteria (their service meets your needs, you own your data, shared values, track record...) For any service, someone, somewhere has already built a powerful framework that will be constantly updated and improved, and bakes in thousands of features (security, translation, powerful content management, mobile interfaces, etc.) which will be effortless to turn on when you discover you need them. Focus your precious software development budget on the much smaller number of things that are custom to your work and don't exist. This greatly reduces the initial dev costs as well as ongoing maintenance costs.

  2. Seriously, don't build it yourself.

On Pragmatism and the OLPC

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 01/07/2013 - 10:02

has a hands-on photoshoot with the revolutionary XO-4 convertible tablet/laptop.  It has an infrared touchscreen, has refocused its interface to run on top of a standard Linux distribution instead of a customized and tweaked version, and... um... it looks rather familiar. I mean to say, it's almost indistinguishable from the XO-1.  

And that's a very good thing.  What has happened to the OLPC program is, in many ways, what I'd hoped they'd intentionally choose as a path forward-  thoughtful and efficient development focused on impact over glitz, using existing projects and tools where available, and not re-inventing things that weren't broken, but using incremental improvements.  Of course, that approach doesn't catch headlines as well, but it does work.

Scaling Social Entrepreneurship, New Economics, and more!

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 09/24/2012 - 16:02

Here are the video links for my presentations from Campus Party Europe:

GeekEconomy with Don Tapscott (Author, Speaker and Advisor on Media, Technology and Innovation) and Simon Hampton (Director Public Policy EU, Google)


Scaling Social Innovations

My slides and notes here:


Campus Party Europe 2012 presentation: Scaling Social Innovation

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 08/24/2012 - 18:00

What follows are my speaking notes from my talk with on the role of open source models in scaling social change. You can see this, plus Ashoka Fellow Gregor Hackmack's presentation onhis own amazing scale, at .

Maddening Development Madlibs

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 06/04/2012 - 12:44

There is a set of tropes, if you will, in startup social-enterprise projects. You can almost imagine them as a set of madlibs to be filled out and magically transformed into a development project. While I'm getting tired of hearing these tropes rolled out as innovative new business models, clearly others have not yet gotten so worn out by them. I'd like to fix that, with this one-size-fits all madlib-style business plan builder.

Let's play! fill this list out:

1 Office or commercial space/building: ___________
2 Consumer good: ___________
3 Vulnerable population: ___________
4 Affluent neighborhood
5 Clothing item
6 Country where rich people live:
7 Your favorite MDG: ___________
8 Type of professional: ___________
9 "third world" country: ___________
10 Number between 1 and 10: ___________

Done? Great! Too lazy? I've automated the process for you.

Let's review your business plan...

Exploring the Un-mappable: Bangkok Markets

Submitted by Jon on Sun, 03/18/2012 - 10:16

Bangkok by night

Bangkok is truly infinite in all directions.

We had just turned a corner from the nuts-and-bolts district into a more open-air-marketish area. According to our maps, this was indeed the "Thieves Market" - formerly where people would fence stolen goods, now more of a market of randomness in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown.

We'd wandered through here earlier in the day by accident, and had had our fill of browsing powertools, pirated DVD porn, dollar-store items and kitchenware, so we peeked down a side alleyway that looked likely to go through to the next block over, in our general direction of onward wandering. On a whim, we took it (the joys of careless wandering that a good sense of direction and a local SIM card in a jailbroken iPhone afford you).

THIS was the real thieves market. We had stumbled into an invisible warren of narrow sois and passageways full of everything. From Playstations to cameras to knockoff tablets to boardgames and more, densely packed in a fractaline arrangement - a market in a market in a district full of markets in a city where everything (except a decent martini) seems to be for sale at a price -- the Bangkok Post classifieds, a surprisingly family-friendly section of the paper, still has large paid adverts for liposuction (600USD) and gender reassignment (1600USD). Package deals available.

This is Bangkok, where the downtown mega-mall shopping district got so frustrated with the street-side markets and 6-lane traffic jams slowing down foot-traffic between the office-building sized malls that they built above-ground sidewalks to link them together, as if the city itself were trying to scab over its street vendors and traffic congestion.

It's unmappable. Bangkok has a perfectly understandable system of neighborhoods, main streets and side streets that make navigation - once you grok the system - natural. WikiTravel explains this system the best:

Addresses in Bangkok use the Thai addressing system, which may be a little confusing to the uninitiated. Large roads such as Silom or Sukhumvit are thanon (ถนน), [...] while the side streets branching off from them are called soi (ซอย). Sois are numbered, with even numbers on one side and odd numbers on the other side. Thus, an address like "25 Sukhumvit Soi 3" means house/building number 25 on the 3rd soi of Sukhumvit Road. While the soi numbers on each side will always advance upward, the numbers often do not advance evenly between sides — for example, Soi 55 could be across from Soi 36. Many well-known sois have an additional name, which can be used instead of the number. Sukhumvit Soi 3 is also known as "Soi Nana Nuea", so the address above might thus also be expressed as "25 Soi Nana Nuea". The extension /x is used for new streets created between existing streets, as seen in Sukhumvit's soi pattern 7, 7/1, 7/2, 9, 11. Note that some short alleys are called trok (ตรอก) instead of soi.

To make things a little more complex, some large sois like Soi Ekkamai (Sukhumvit Soi 63) and Soi Ari (Phahonyothin Soi 7) have their own sois. In these cases, an address like "Ari Soi 3" means "the 3rd soi off Soi Ari", and you may even spot addresses like "68/2 Ekkamai Soi 4, Sukhumvit Road", meaning "2nd house beside house 68, in the 4th soi of Ekkamai, which is the 63rd soi of Sukhumvit". In many sois, the house numbers are not simply increasing, but may spread around.

Markets like the thieves market exist in a mix between sois, sub-sois, and a further maze of twisty little passages, all same-same, but different. This system has driven map-makers insane. Guidebooks like the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide have taken to a neighborhood, points-of-interest approach, which is great if you never stray from the path, but confusingly fails to include all the random side-streets, so "the first street on the left" may be very, very misleading. Google seems to be building a more comprehensive map overall, with anything that a two-wheeled vehicle could manage showing up -- but it's not complete, missing some of the better hidden or poorly mapped areas altogether. Open Street Maps is focusing so far on only the larger streets, missing huge swaths of the fractal nature of Bangkok.

The low cost of entry into these markets also mean that there is immense flux - a food stall may only be there a certain chunk of days out of the week, may move, or go out of business. It may have the best fried quail eggs in wanton wrappers in Bangkok, but good luck finding it reviewed at TripAdvisor.

But that misses the point, anyhow. In preparing for the trip, the guidebooks and websites both were failing at restaurant and shopping recommendations. That's because these are not really specific destinations in Thailand, but journeys that every traveler willing to venture out beyond their 5-star hotel or the backpacker ghetto must make on their own. Everyone will choose their own adventure - it will be perfect and unique and unrepeatable. And that, in this age of commoditized experiences and peer-reviewed restaurants, may actually be the most valuable part of a trip in Thailand.

Social Currency Unleashed: Bitcoin? (on FastCoExist)

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 02/06/2012 - 15:41

Here's one of our big ideas from last week's overview. I take the helm here and dive in to alternative currencies, like the crazy new kid on the block -- bitcoin.

Is bitcoin a key to unlocking social currency?

The earlier attempts all were centralized startups, each proposing a competing faux-currency to ease online (providing simplicity and improving trust) transactions and slowly build a virtual currency of sorts. Their business plans generally involved taking margins from the transactions or cost differentials. The early Internet currency attempts ran into regulatory problems (most countries frown upon private companies setting up alternate currencies, it turns out), and had to evolve their offerings to avoid getting shut out.

Bitcoin provides something different. Instead of a currency that has evolved from being backed by precious metals into fiat currencies, Bitcoin is backed by cryptographic algorithms, and has no company--or even an identifiable person--behind it. This shared system provides an amazing openness for a currency: Every transaction is part of a public, collaborative log. However, the people behind those transactions are known only by their account numbers, in a world where you can create as many accounts as you like.

Read the full article at Fast Co.Exist

The change economy

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 02/01/2012 - 09:04

Over at FastCoExist, my colleague and I are rolling out a series of big changes and ideas in economy - from bitcoin to DIY job creation to well-being, starting here:

(You can guess who's the primary author behind the bitcoin piece)

At FastCo.Exist: It’s Time To Start Judging Nonprofits Like For-Profits

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 01/06/2012 - 15:51

A rant on the tight hold "overhead" has on nonprofit financials and giving decisions I wrote with my colleague is up on Co.Exist. An excerpt:

When considering donations, people often make harsh assumptions about nonprofits that spend on marketing and overhead. But maybe those expenses means the organization is doing a good job?
Every year around this time, a batch of articles comes out talking about how to maximize your year-end giving by focusing on nonprofits with super-low overhead, so you can rest assured that every cent you donate goes directly to the cause.

But I’ve spent the better part of my career as a nonprofit tech warrior, from volunteering in the Peace Corps to a variety of domestic and internationally focused NGOs and nonprofits--small and large. I’ve had contract, full-time, pro-bono, and board positions, and have been on both the grant-requesting and grant-reviewing/giving sides of the equation, and I can tell you that this isn’t entirely fair. The problem is this overhead supports the cause, and zeroing it out means that the 99% non-overhead may be spent poorly or non-strategically, especially in smaller organizations. Programmatic costs may pay for the work, but overhead pays for the tools to do the work well.

read more.

As a follow-on, if I ever hit the jackpot, I want to build a foundation that only invests in the most boring line-items. Toilet repair? Computer upgrades? Then, pair the information about what's not getting funding with social innovators looking for unmet needs, and you create something interesting.

The Art of Failing

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 11/14/2011 - 10:17

I have a critical flaw - not being able to say no to helping out worthwhile projects get their technological house in order.

I've left a trail of wikis, content management system-run sites, and creative cabling across three continents. One such effort was in the pre-iPhone world of the early 2000s with a creative social enterprise that empowered artisans to realize the full market value of their goods (often undercut by middlemen taking advantage of innumeracy, a need for liquidity, or both). These goods are then shipped to the US to sell. The NGO takes a small cut for its operations and the shipping cost, and everyone benefits. Beyond dealing with the unpredictability of the Nicaraguan electrical system, they were efficient in their offline practices, but saw the need for inventory tracking. That seemingly basic task is both a key to empowering online sales and other scaling activities, but is no short order. The system must be able to know what items were stored in what locations in the US and in Nicaragua, and meet the needs for a geographically disperse set of volunteers to sell those items at events. It also has to have a simple and largely foolproof way of adding inventory from the Nica office that can absorb a backlog of work if the power or Internet connection is off.

Web 1.0: Cue Cat No problem - totally doable. For the US side, we work with a Salesforce Foundation volunteer to create an online, cloud-based inventory system where the volunteers can log transactions live on the site using a re-purposed cue:cat barcode scanner -- the cue:cat itself being a dotcom-era QR code wannabe, best summed up by Jeff Salkowski of the Chigao Tribune as "You have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can." and by Wired’s Leander Kahney as "a cheapo bar-code scanner that looks like a marital aid."

On the Nica side, the staff can add the inventory on a spreadsheet and batch upload it into SalesForce whenever they have power. This gives them an offline backup, and lets work continue (on a laptop) even if power cuts out. The Excel sheet automatically creates a code that can be barcode-ified for matching by the volunteer sales staff without painstaking scribbling of notes.

We’re in this to save and improve lives, not make a profit. If a plan fails, it’s lives lives - not just bank accounts -- that are not enriched.

Perfect, right? With so much time spent on the “challenging” part of the equation in Nica, not enough thought went into the sales side - often outside, at craft markets, sometimes in the rain. Not happy environments for laptops, rarely enough electricity or battery power to last the day, and never any wifi to actually connect to the Internet to track sales in realtime.

Times have changed, and the plan, like the cue:cat itself, may have a new life in our 3G-saturated world with QR Codes and Square point-of-sale gadgets replacing the bulky laptop, but at the time, it was simply a failure.

What do you do when your project just falls flat? Moving on and hiding it is the wrong answer. The right answer is that you get up in front of a crowd of your peers, donors, and investors (past and potentially future) and spill the beans. In the startup world, some amount of failure is expected, and even welcomed. Learning from failure is, after all, the best education out there. But in the do-gooder space of non-profits and international development organizations, failure is not an option.

The challenge is that we’re in this industry if you will to save and improve lives, not make a profit. If a plan fails, it’s lives lives - not just bank accounts -- that are not enriched.

There are obviously failures in development, as evidenced by the mere fact that we’re five to six decades in to concerted global efforts, and still working on it. More ICT4D projects fail than ever scale beyond the pilot stage. The World Bank bravely released its internal study revealing that while most of its projects succeed overall, in the ICT4D category of projects, only achieve their intended outcomes 30% of the time. Some of those may be wildly successful in unanticipated ways, others just complete flops.

Katrin Verclas has done the community a huge favor in creating and open-sourcing the concept of the FailFaire.

The Failfaire celebrates and de-stigmatizes failure by loosening lips with some alcohol and then throwing people on staqe for a tightly scheduled 5 minute moment of candor. Thanks to the open-source philosophy, these have spread to internal organizational events as well as a few public failfaires, most recently one hosted by Inveneo’s Wayan Vota in DC at the World Bank itself, and another coming up this December in NYC hosted by MobileActive.

The risks of failure in development work are clearly weightier than Q3 profits,which makes the relaxed, raucousness of a failfaire that much more important. For a community that has no normal mechanism for learning across the various implementers, the only way we can advance the whole cause is through these commiserations over good goals, good people, and solid technology completely failing - and learning from them.

This was best encapsulated after the event. One presenter discussed his media-darling pedal-powered phone booth for remote villages, which was a complete failure. Another Failfaire-er approached him afterwards to commiserate on similar problems - their own popular bike-powered computer system actually took almost seven people pedaling to reliably power the system. While bikes garner tons of often-misguided warm feelings and media popularity, they aren’t necessarily silver bullets -- a lesson for the road.

Open Source Society

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 11/09/2011 - 09:32


This is a rough summary of my talk Tuesday night at DCWeek's Hot Tech Trends. Read more about the panel and continue the discussion over at quora

The trend I'm most interested in right now is actually as much offline as it is on. It really hit me a few weeks ago as I was reading through the minutes of an Occupy General Assembly. Here was a huge meeting with multiple viewpoints that was being successfully self-facilitated, prioritizing issues and moving quickly. This was a committee that was being collaborative, open, transparent, and still ... effective.

It really got me thinking on how we are are becoming accustomed to new social constructs in movements, government, and business. These concepts are familiar to anyone who's delved into the nuts and bolts of open source software -- like collaboration, shared or no ownership, team-building, and radical transparency -- but they're popping up everywhere offline.

So, I want to tackle the convergence of these concepts offline with the democratization of tools online

By democratization, I really mean simplicity and open to all. An important pre-condition to this is basic access, but we are increasingly living in an access-rich world, thanks to mobile. This year, Africa surpassed both European and the Americas and is now the second largest market for mobiles - behind only the Asia/Pacific region.

But beyond access, there is a new "digital divide" if you will -- the ability to create and engage in a participatory experience. Things like Twitter and blogging have long been low barriers of entry for getting your voice heard online. The exciting development in this arena is that it is mindbogglingly easy to create complex sites and apps with drupal and wordpress, at least compared to the work this would have taken 10 years ago.

This combination of a simple toolbox and open social constructs is powerful.

The past few years have been accelerating this convergence. Blogs and Wikipedia have permanently altered publishing, Twitter, Facebook and foursquare have opened up your social life, and Yelp and Tripadvisor have changed your customer service interactions with travel and dining destinations.

But more importantly, crowdfunding models like Kiva and Kickstarter are toe-in-water steps towards creating collaborative business models by seeking out customers and supporters in a very early stage and rallying their support around potential projects and products. Co-working spaces provide entry-level incubation for young startups with great perks of cross-startup networking and talent sharing. These fast prototyping models reduce overall risk and create engaged, evangelical customers and partners.

The social change sphere has jumped in to this intersection and is spawning hundereds of really exciting co-creation models. We've seen this in crisis mapping (Snowpocalypse, Haiti, Thailand), protest movements (Moldova, ArabSpring, OWS), open data mashups combining entrepreneurs and civic data (Apps4Democracy, UN Global Pulse), and even countries crowdsourcing their own constitutions (Iceleand and now Morocco)

The availability of these easy to use platforms and expectations of openness and co-creation is forcing new levels of engagement in all sectors. People are no longer OK with occasional, reactive, or superficial engagement.

My first human interaction with a brand shouldn't be after I post a negative tweet - nor should it be a annual 10 page user survey that never changes anything. I want to help build their business and be engaged at a strategic level, even though I'm "just" a consumer

If that sounds a bit insane and totally unscalable, just replace business with government and consumer with citizen and it suddenly sounds less crazy.

Business, non-profits, social enterprises, and governments will all need to open up not only their data or their superficial interactions, but begin to fully collaborate with their communities on their policies and business plans.

This means that 2012 holds a huge potential for global co-creation and new organizational frameworks, and anyone who doesn't begin to engage customers, supporters and citizens in this way is going to be shut out by organizations that aren't merely building their business with their users in mind, but building their business with their users.

With these concepts of shared ownership, highly functional teams, collaboration and transparency, combined with online structures that parallel these same values, we have a world where decentralized, democratized power structures forming across the digital/analog borders. This changes governance, economics, social change and business.

Holy shit, this is going to be a wild, fun ride.

"All the things" courtesy quickmeme with the amazing original comic by Hyperbole and a Half

In the Global Mirror, the #OWS 99% looks a lot like the 1%

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 10/21/2011 - 08:57


Let me be clear - I have a difficult relationship with the Occupy movement.

On the one hand - it's about damned time. Finally we have a large, sustained protest movement nation-wide and even globally that's rightfully upset about some core problems. It's not politically aligned, it's well-spoken, and it has been resilient enough to overcome being ignored by the media and has crafted its own story. That it has been inspired in part by the Arab Spring and Tahrir Square in particular, which were inspired in part themselves by MLK's non-violent protests gives a heart-warming feeling of global solidarity and social justice.

Further, it's very exciting that Occupy comes at a turning point in history where our social constructs and technologies make it possible to really manage a movement through collaboration instead of by a hierarchy, and a world where people have a powerful online voice and the ability to shake things up if they get out of hand (not without challenges in the realm of privacy and government censorship ).

Don't just Occupy

Back from Dakar: How I built a Drupal 7 site in 7 days

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 10/04/2011 - 10:42

Dakar. It's hot. Lots of goats. In 2-5 years, it could be a major tech hub -- sooner with some policy and infrastructure changes, but the core is there, from VC4Africa hosting meetups at co-working/social change hubs like JokkoLabs to a budding online community of drupal hackers. The infrastructure seems to remain a daunting challenge, with mobile internet lagging behind, banks not being innovative, and a fragile power system reliant on imported oil.

I spent just under two weeks working with Ashoka fellow Hamadou Tidiane SY, who was elected in 2009 to the News and Knowledge program of the fellowship. He has grown Ouestaf, a small independent news site to almost a household word in francophone Africa through amazing dedication to professionalism in journalistic standards and solid coverage of core issues, avoiding sensationalism. News and Knowledge director Keith Hammonds has a blog post on the model.

How to Build a News Website in Seven Days

More on bots saving the world at @FastCompany

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 10/04/2011 - 10:40

Alexa and I have another article up at FastCompany on social entrepreneurs and bots, and their roles in thriving in complex environments -- and how that's critical in saving the world:

However, bots can also act as good agents for systems governance as long as two principles are in place: transparency and trust. First, if we are to depend on bots to manage these complex systems then this management must be transparent for anyone to inspect, challenge, and improve. Secondly, the trust in the system must similarly be distributed. We are long past the days where any one entity could simply say “trust me.” The bots must act within a trust framework, where any agent in the system can begin to assign trust values to other agents. Add back in transparency, and you get a web of trust which scales rapidly without the need for any central trusted-by-default agent.

But robots aren't the only things that can disrupt the system with a new kind of logic. There is already one agent of systems-change that’s working outside the traditional methodology in a way that can effect drastic change: social entrepreneurs.

The social entrepreneur is, like a robot, another type of actor accustomed to operating in complex environments. Social entrepreneurs tackle major social issues and offer new, innovative ideas for wide-scale change. They seek out what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps. In this way they are both the destabilizing element and the control system.

The robots are coming

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 09/23/2011 - 05:26

A colleague and I have the first of two articles posted on FastCompany - discussing the role of automation in job creation -- and destruction:

Look deeply into the beady little electronic eye of your vacuum-cleaning robot, and you’ll see a machine bent on world domination. For now, it focuses on finding and eradicating dirt, but every time it gets into a particularly extracted fight with a wall, your feet, or a house pet--you know it has larger ambitions. More concerning than the Roomba’s aggressive policy stance against furniture legs is what it as a product means for labor, job creation, and automation.

We’re used to a well-worn path in manufacturing, and business in general. An extra bright cave-dweller figures out how to use a round object to help move large things, early adopters begin to share the practice, and then pretty soon everyone is using wheels. Eventually, artisan wheel-makers find themselves out of a job when factories start pumping out robot-manufactured wheels, and we move on as a society--wheels are now a given commodity.

The thing is, those robots have taken over the factory floor, and are moving upstairs.

Read more:

Panels to support for an amazing SXSW 2012

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 08/19/2011 - 14:21

It's not to early to start making sure that your SXSW 2012 experience is fully awesome. How you ask? Why, by voting for awesome panels to attend.

To start off with some absolutely shameless self-promotion, I will be presenting with the my colleagues at Ashoka Changemakers on "Open Growth" and systems change. Create an account and vote for us here: .

Changemakers has a blog post on all our panels.

Some more panels worth voting for:

Care about there actually being some interesting tech talks at SXSW? Vote for Brandon Wiley's panel here: on launching your startup completely in the cloud.

Want to talk pirates and innovation? This might be your ticket:

Is the state of journalism getting you down? Check these out: and

Is it just your content strategy? Hear some real content horror stories:

Just unhappy in general? Work with happiness to make your business better:

Monitoring and Evaluation is broken. Let's really break it.

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 08/16/2011 - 16:17

One of the sad truths that emerged at the Technology Salon on ICTs and M&E was that failure in development is rarely about the project performance, but about winning the next contract. This means that monitoring and evaluation is less about tracking and improving progress towards social change and more about weaving an advertising pitch.

This is not for a lack of frameworks, tools, mapping measurements against a theory of change, or even the need for more real-time data in development. It is about incentives. What is incentivized at the macro level is getting big numbers on the board and nice clean upwardly-trending graph lines. Micro-level incentives for filing reports to fill out the monitoring side of things focus on report filing as a requirement for salary payments or other basic carrot/stick-driven models. Neither of these actually encourage accurate, honest data, yet only with that accurate data can we remotely hope to tweak models and make improvements.

So, let's break monitoring apart from evaluation.

Online Activism after #ArabSpring : What's Next?

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 06/24/2011 - 15:18

So, I've been beating this drum for a while - oppressive governments are increasingly quick and intelligent in responding to protests that use mobile and new media to organize and get the word out. So, join us in July ( to hear from an amazing panel and discuss the next steps in this cat and mouse game:

The Twitter Revolution.  The Cellphone Revolution.  The Facebook Revolution.  While the "Arab Spring" uprisings succeed based on real-world organizing, protests and democracy-building, it's no secret that mobiles and social media provided tools to broadcast, coordinate and amplify these movements.  Oppressive governments are responding both faster and smarter to these digital tools.

Please join our panel of experts discussing the role of online activism going forward.  What are the next steps in information empowerment in a more hostile environment for online activism?  What is the role of mobile and new media in affecting change in government, and what are the risks?

We will begin with a discussion by the panelists, then move into an open question and answer session.  Afterwards, we'll transition to a happy hour at Circle Bistro.

This meet-up is co-hosted by IREX and Appropriate IT.

Online Activism after #ArabSpring : What's Next?

Apples that are neither green nor easy to digest.

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 04/22/2011 - 09:25

A few weeks back, I saw this show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" at the Woolly Mammoth. It's by Mike Daisey, and is a work of non-fiction, describing his experiences infiltrating electronics factories in China (read a bit about that at ABC News, and watch the embedded TechCrunch interview. It's playing in Seattle soon, and might come back to DC eventually. It is absolutely worth watching. It perfectly captures the Apple fanboy, and technology enthusiasts in general, and will have you howling with laughter at you see yourself in his portrayals of these characters. By the end, however, you may not want to touch your iPhone. Or buy one. Or consider the conditions under which it was made.

To add on to that, Apple just got named as the least green tech company by GreenPeace, focusing primarily on their coal-powered data centers. Facebook came in second, while Yahoo, Google and Amazon were praised for their use of clean energy.

Support Property Rights

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 01/06/2011 - 11:21

Ashoka's Changemakers is running a global competition with the Omidyar Network to source the most innovative approaches for providing property rights to those who lack them around the world.

If you're reading my blog, you probable understand the importance of being able to define and claim your ownership of property - it affects the stability of your living situation, your ability to qualify for (micro)finance, and your ability to even get a job by having a "real" address. Not to mention the obvious personal dignity values of having a place you can call your home, and the hands-down value in women's land ownership in stabilizing communities.

Vote Now! As part of our competition process we let the world decide who among our finalists have the best ideas, giving everyone the ability to crown the winners. So go and read the ideas of the semi-finalists, create an account and vote for your favorites at

Five thoughts on WikiLeaks

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 12/08/2010 - 21:02

We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the internet safely. [ ... ] We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, [...]

Great ideals, sure, but what about WikiLeaks? Who in this day and age would vocally and publicly support tools that would "[circumvent] politically motivated censorship" when these crazies could be terrorists being censgored by a friendly government, or when their "free speech rights" could be potentially tied to copyrighted material?

Those were the words of Secretary Clinton, speaking earlier this year Hat-tip to BoingBoing. Kinda less relevant today, huh?

WikiLeaks has changed political discourse, and quite possibly the path of the Internet's evolution. I can't claim to have completely digested my own views on this, but here's a start, and some links to a lot of great thoughtwork on the situation.

1) Maybe this is the world we want. Long discussions about the value of a hegemonic global political system and its values on stability (at the cost of human rights, generally speaking) aside, the USA's political power is in flux right now, and possibly fading out. Do we want another superpower to emerge and dominate the world? USA, for all our foibles, has some strong ideals around democratic rule and human rights. We don't always practice those, but they're at least core to our political discourse. A truly multipolar world needs global-level democracy, and it's tools like wikileaks that begin to create that. Well, that, and a roving band of crypto-anarchists who get pissed off at this ham-handedness and decide to take the websites of mastercard and visa down. And Wikipedia. And torrent-sharing sites. Any tool that's good at promoting human rights in repressive regimes is also good at enabling dissidents, whistleblowers, pedophiles, and people swapping mp3 files. You don't get to pick and choose who uses these things, and trying to do so destroys their value immediately. These tools also lend themselves towards mob rule, so we need to choose our next steps carefully. As a side note, if you really disapprove of harshly, externally-enforced transparency of what you consider private details, then I really hope you're not reading this from a link on Facebook.

2) It's OK to be a Voltaire here. While not technically his own words, he certainly held and espoused the concept: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Wikileaks is being, well, over the top and careless in what it's releasing. The Collateral Murder video seems pretty clearly whistleblowing. The cable leaks are un-aimed. Clay Shirky summed this up solidly:

I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want. [...]

Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change. If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.

It's OK, if not strongly encouraged, to be not a big fan of WikiLeaks, but still supportive of their right to exist and disseminate "leaked" information. Would the US be upset if this was a leak of internal Chinese diplomatic ramblings, or North Korea, or Iran -- or would we be chalking another success up for "the little guy" in the global struggle for democracy and freedom of speech? We're all sovereign States here, at some level, there should be at least an illusion of equal rights among States.

3) Don't be Grand Moff Tarkin. Yeah, a Star Wars reference for good measure. The actual reference is to some parting advice from Leia on his tough stance around the use of force to put down rebels; "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." As an anonymous commenter on the BoingBoing story above said;

I think you misunderstood what she said. The attacks are the tool. Just look at the effect its had on wikileaks. Its gone from being hosted on a single server with rather unsafe DNS etc to being mirrored over 1000 times across the world!

Truely this government is driving the development of anti-censorship tools and increasing the power of free speech online.

This is the first of many problems of this sort, and here we are showing off all the tricks in our playbook. Over at Crooked Timber, Henry puts it more succinctly:

The US response to Wikileaks has been an interesting illustration of both the limits and extent of state power in an age of transnational information flows. The problem for the US has been quite straightforward. The Internet makes it more difficult for states (even powerful ones such as the US) to control information flows across their own borders and others. [The jurisdictional problems of the Internet] makes it much harder for the US and other actors to use the traditional tools of statecraft[...]

However, there is a set of tools that states can use to greater effect. The Internet and other networks provide some private actors with a great deal of effective transnational power. Banks that operate across multiple jurisdictions can shape financial flows between these jurisdictions.

The Internet has this amazing and annoying problem that's baked pretty deeply in to its architecture - it is designed to move information as efficiently as possible. This makes censorship attempts backfire every time. Somehow, no one has learned this.

4) Shooting the messenger is a fast way to being uninformed. Disabling, hobbling, and otherwise subjecting tools to political will is a very dangerous path. Amazon has a great business around providing "elastic" computing and hosting services to companies, and I'm going to bet that anyone using Amazon's services is re-examining their hosting choices right about now. Breaking the DNS system to take the main wikileaks site off the web -- I'm sure that sounded like a brilliant idea, and it's going to reignite a debate around the US's control of huge swaths of the DNS system, and probably make that power very difficult to enact both politically and technically. Again, the trust in what was considered a trusty tool has been eroded, and anyone working on hot-button issues is going to take extra care such that they have secondary systems to provide future resiliency against a similar attack. Beyond the points made in (3), we're hurting normal business that trusts these services to be reliable. Ethan Zuckerman has a good Q&A about this at the Columbia Journalism Review

5) Don't forget the real story. Did Julian Assange actually commit a crime in the US? He's not a citizen, he didn't do any of this in the US, and he's not the one who stole the classified documents. And he hasn't been charged with a crime (in the US, yet). Are we really pursuing someone for re-broadcasting already leaked, classified documents? That worked so well with the Pentagon Papers.

Hey, at least we live in interesting times.

#PulseCamp : Building a vital stats monitor for the world

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 12/06/2010 - 11:24

My brain was pretty close to silly putty by the end of last week. It was been snapping back and forth, rubber-band-like, between microscopic, tightly focused, gnarled and tricky use cases up to their connection to the UN Global Pulse project - a global, systems-changing project.

Sketching out the architecture. This might take more post-its.

The Global Pulse, at scale, is... well, the more time I spend on it the less I'm sure I know what it specifically is. In effect, it is a massive data coordination system which helps visualization and tracking of anomalys and trends. The dream is to predict crises and improve prevention. This is easily thought of in detecting disease outbreaks through various data-connected behavior changes (increase in usage of oral rehydration salts as evidenced by stock-outs in health clinics reported in a nationa health information system could indicate a cholera problem). Its most valuable use case seems to be at the national level, but there would also (obviously) be a global level to track larger trends across countries and regions. And country-level offices could peer together with other Pulse installations, bring in global baseline data, and so on. It keeps going deeper and deeper in every direction possible.

Accepting the insanely complicated data and architecture questions, how do you even find the right data (whether it's well-formatted or a pile of paper), and connect it in and pull out solid anomaly tracking and generate useful, predictive guesses on trends. That's the key in the next stage of the Pulse - starting in one country. This PulseLab will be able to grok the local context and know the right data to plug in.

The trick for the data and architecture part has also been faced. Implementation will not be easy, by any means, but the goal of the architecture is to re-use and re-cycle as many existing tools as possible to slurp in data (both chunky databases and firehoses of live streaming data), standardize it, and then create a set of manipulation and visualization tools to help reveal trends and test hypotheses. This will likely take the form of a set of toyboxes of data sources, data transformation tools, apps (input/output to other useful systems like mappers, charting, Ushahidi, etc.), and a recipe box of how others have chained these together for specific data-digging goals. This recipe and the hypothesis testing tool (the "hunch" ) will likely compete to be the core social object of the system, with aid and government officials trading hunches and recipes (and recipes to support hunches, hunches based on recipe results...).

A potential Global Pulse Product-in-a-box for an end user

There is a lot up in the air, and a lot still to congeal as development of this tool and the architecture gets moving. The (amazingly well-facilitated) process which went from thinking through users, their requirements, common underlying system-level requirements and speccing those out was fantastic. It encouraged a lot of different and conflicting views around the product's end form to come to a loose consensus (and a better, more flexible product outline!).

If you're saying it can't be done, you're almost right. The first iterations will be limited and possibly fragile, relying on low-hanging data fruit instead of difficult to "harvest" data exhaust. Privacy issues abound, both on personal levels and at government security levels. Trust me when I say that the room was stock full of mind-bogglingly smart people who have dealt with the real worlds of development and reconstruction work, and these obstacles are being worked through by people who realize that lives and livelihoods are at stake in some of the privacy questions.

Here are summary notes from each day: One (Term of the Day: "Data Exhaust"), Two (TotD: "Data Esperanto"), and Three (TotD: "Contextualized Cartography"), as well as a solid overview of the project, and the call to action leading in to last week's workshop. A great writeup of the event is at by MIT's Nadav Aharony.

Soccer for Social Change

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 07/27/2010 - 12:22

One of the competitions we run over at Ashoka's Changemakers is now up for voting - it's focused on the use of Football (Soccer) for social change. The finalists are an amazing bunch, and thanks to a consortia of amazing developers from enomaly and We The Media, there's an equally amazing voting widget!

Development using SMS, not SMS4Dev

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 06/21/2010 - 08:24

Cross-posted at

Where the last SMS4D Technology Salon reminded us of the unique gift of mobile technologies to be based where there impact will be, The Cloudy SMS4D Salon really drove home mobile as a multifunctional tool whose true impact is tied more to the usage than the technology itself. While we gathered to discuss SMS4D, we really talked about heath reporting and outreach, education, and community-building through knowledge management and sharing. It just so happened that these health projects were using SMS codes to report longitudinal child health statistics.

Data gathering in health, and even knowing when to gather data, is a huge burden, often relying on community health workers doing the healthcare version of the T&V system of the agricultural extension world. Waiting around for a planned infrastructure is hopeless, but working with the more incremental nature of mobile can improve reporting rates and reduce errors -- "utter chaos works everywhere" being the best quote of this tech salon. Childcount builds on existing SMS reporting to enable community health workers to rapidly register children, note any symptoms or diseases they might have, improve patient tracking (and thereby reducing duplication), and schedule immunizations and outreach. The SMS "encoding" builds off of a simple and familiar paper form, which is handy for training (but less useful than a mango tree, as we'll see). The runner-up quote from this Salon dealt with discussion around the potential risk of intentionally fabricated data -- "humans are awful at falsifying data" -- digitizing and quick, auditable reporting exposes both errors and lies.

RapidResponse Overview from Matt Berg on Vimeo.

Winning the award for innovative ideas in mHealth was the HappyPill project -- instead of boing old SMS, HappyPills uses "flashing" - where you call a number and hang up immediately to "ping" someone. Usually, flashing is just a free way to ask someone to call you back, or you can sometimes work out extensive codes -- one missed call is just saying hi, two is call me back, three means an emergency, etc.. HappyPills takes this basic, essentially binary interaction and applies it to help improve adherence rates for prescription regimens. A medical center can send out flashes to their patients, and the patients are reminded to take their pills and would then flash back to signal that they took their medicine. It's naturally not foolproof, but hugely more cost effective (almost cost-free) in comparison with sending a community health worker out to the patient on a motorcycle to witness their pill-taking.


It turns out that people are not just willing, but economically motivated and excited to use (and pay for) basic SMS-based services to improve their numeracy and literacy skills, improving their ability to communicate cheaply over their phones as well as better navigate market prices. In these low-technology communities, Tostan's Jokko Initiative is creating a curriculum to enable this via SMS, and they have also come up with an amazingly simple methodology to introduce people to menu systems using a mango tree metaphor which gracefully transitions from the concrete (planning a climbing route on a real tree to get to a specific mango) to the semi-concrete (the same, on a diagram of a tree), to the abstract (the tree diagram becomes the menu diagram, the mango a specific function). Anyone who thinks that is basic has never shown their grandparents a new shiny piece of technology, or had their entire worldview of user interface challenged by someone physically pointing a mouse at a screen).

Patatat is an early-stage solution which puts SMS into the role of a community town hall/newsletter/email list. It removes not only the normal geographic barriers that a listserv gets around, but also infrastructure barriers, so (for example) farmers across a region or the world can share knowledge around their crops without relying on the grid and hardwired phones/Internet to do so. This also centralizes costs to one "host" and minimizes it to the community, so a farmer could send one SMS (free to receive, costs to send), and the host would re-broadcast it to the entire "community." With Twitter already showing that it can (technically) report earthquakes faster than the earthquake itself spreads, this rebroadcasting tool also has clear applications in emergency announcements, citizen journalism and a myriad of other fields.

So, was this technology salon about technology, or was it about development projects? Sure, all of the projects discussed at the salon happened to use server and cloud-based SMS technologies. They also probably use paper, transportation, and people. That the technology is now moving from the focus of a project to being a (cool, exciting, powerful, still new-and-shiny) tool in the toolbox is truly heartwarming. It means it is maturing into a cross-sector role and not into another silo (sorry, a "cylinder of excellence" in the parlance of our times).

The Secret Sauce in Technology For Development isn't the Tech.

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 05/28/2010 - 10:23

Ushahidi's Patrick Meier has a fantastic graph of deployment time for Ushahidi's amazing crisis-mapping solution (which has been deployed for such diverse projects as Haiti post-earthquake, the Gulf Coast post-BP, and DC's 2009/10 "Snowmageddon"):

The simplicity of Ushahidi setup sometimes leads to some crestfallen administrators.

Just because you bought a domain name and ran the Ushahidi installer doesn’t mean that anyone is going to use they system — and even if you somehow get a lot of reports, you might not be relevant to the existing systems [...] Ushahidi is only 10% of solution.”

I'd posit that this 10%/90% division applies to any and all "tech" solutions to real-world problems.

The technology is increasingly (perhaps it always has been) the easy part. It's a shiny, tangible product with clear "milestones" of in development, in testing, deployed, working. Lots of happy checkboxes for any M&E report, and photo-ops to generate great press and build excitement and community around a technology.

Going Nuts over the Value of Local Production

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 05/06/2010 - 12:39

For some background, I highly recommend Alanna Shaikh's post here: and follow-up here: . In short, a French company is defending their patent on a super-nutritious "therapeutic" food called Plumpy'nut against a lawsuit by some US NGOs (who could have licensed it, but are instead trying to break the patent)

My guy reaction was anti-intellectual property, as I strongly believe that our current IP schemes tend to do more damage than good. That being said, I think Nutriset is seemingly doing the right thing here - forcing support for local production. Let us presume nothing but sparkly, unicorn-bedazzled thoughts about Nutriset for a moment:

Goal 1: Provide a therapeutic food product
Goal 2: Ensure quality standards (duh)
Goal 3: Make it widely available and politically tenable to "recipient" governments
Goal 4: Don't make things worse locally by undercutting the economy

You could open the patent, post the ingredients and production methods and encourage everyone to go after it. This would support goals 1,3 and 4, with a risk of opportunists really wrecking #2, anyone could claim that they were using the authentic plumpynut recipe even while their product is unhealthy at best or outright deadly at worst.

SXSW 2010

Submitted by Jon on Sat, 03/13/2010 - 13:42

I made it to South By Southwest this year, where I immersed myself in innovative ideas for open-sourced businesses, technology design for good, social media for change, and the general awesome insanity of SXSW.

The absolute best part of this conference is the new world of twitter-powered discussions. At a talk yesterday, the entire Q&A session was run over twitter. The presenters paused a few questions in and asked for a show of hands of anyone who was not using twitter. In a large crowded ballroom, no one raised their hands. Every session ends up having a running, silent conversation and collaborative note-taking.

You can follow my notes in twitter at, and see what events I went to (or was trying to decide between) at

On Sunday afternoon, I worked with CrisisCamp DC's Heather Blanchard and @HastingsCJ to organize a meetup for ICT4D practitioners at the Gingerman, which turned our great. Lots of faces were put to twitter-names, connections were made and beer was consumed.

Few, if any, tweet-ups will compare, however, to Monday night's Good Capitalist party that Ashoka's Changemakers co-hosted with a variety of other social entrepreneurship groups. Without a dime of marketing money spent, it had 2000 RSVPs and over 600 people who made it by to network, learn about social entrepreneurship, and enjoy the wonderful outdoor Austin weather..

I'm Still Not Convinced

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 11/18/2009 - 14:45

At the IADB seminar on ICT in the classroom, I asked Nicholas Negroponte why not sell the XO laptop -- at or near cost -- to anyone who wanted one? This gets beyond the hassle of having to convince bureaucrats of the value of the laptop without running pilot programs and delaying the eventual adoption. It (hopefully) creates some side markets in support, software development for non-educational uses of the laptop like rural healthcare, and could enable educational uses without going through the schools themselves, even.

Granted, there are some concerns. OLPC has thus far maintained a clarity of focus by working towards their mission of universal access, rather than having to worry (like Intel and Microsoft) about capturing an emerging market. Working at the ministry level potentially could reduce the transaction costs of each "deal," but more importantly, it guarantees some level of equitable distribution of the laptops, ensuring not just those with money will get access.

And this equity is important - for a education project within a school; you have to have all the students with laptops, or you by definition don't have a 1:1 program and you don't have a good shared computing setup either. Lack of computer saturation also opens it up to higher risk for theft.

The Inter-American Development Bank and ICT4Edu

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 09/15/2009 - 20:03

Today's IADB event, Reinventing the Classroom, brought together thought-leaders, practitioners and government officials to discuss the role of technology in education in Latin America. In sum, it was a lot of preaching to the choir. This particular choir, however, hailed from many different churches, temples, cathedrals, and bazaars.

Everyone present believed in the importance of technology in education, but there was enough differences in opinion and methodologies to keep it interesting. It ranged from presentations on real-world experiences of projects in Portugal using a variation of the Intel Classmate to projects in Brazil and Argentina to the amazing Plan CEIBAL of Uruguay, using the OLPC XO. Presenters extolled the virtues of free and open source software as well as the familiar Windows XP.

By the end of the day-long seminar, I felt an odd mix of hope and despair.

In Defense of the Laptop

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 09/09/2009 - 15:32

Reading Alanna Shaikh's writeup on the OLPC Program as a failure in the UNDispatch and clicking through to Timothy Ogden's harsh commentary, I began to feel a bit defensive for OLPC. I know, it's a bit out of character, but not really.

SJ Preaching to the Open Source Choir

Perhaps this is because SJ reminded me of some of the core good things that remain part of OLPC during his talk at the OLPC Learning Club / seminar Tuesday night. SJ went off on tangents on the value of open hardware in society, and the simple concept for learners when they realize that they have complete ownership and ability to open up and modify not only the tools inside the apps on the OLPC laptop, but the code that creates the tools, the code that is the operating system underneath those tools, and the hardware itself that the OS is running on top of. This is empowering and fundamentally and importantly different from a Microsoft environment, where everything is closed and locked down once you try to step outside the walled gardens.

Social Networks (including Facebook) and Technology Transfer

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 07/29/2009 - 13:10

In Social Networks (not Facebook) and Development I covered the relevance of local social networks and social capital / trust for successful, long-term community and economic development.

Finding, engaging an empowering local social networks is the first step. I believe connecting these networks to the global communities of interest and practice on the Internet can provide a multiplier effect.

In the recent Technology Salon on Malawian health ICT systems, it was discussed how hiring recent Malawian college grads and connecting them to the global community of open source coders gave them an immense resource to draw on as they began their work; and they were soon contributing as peers and mentors to other programmers around the world.

That's power, and that's the 21st century version of technology transfer.

Social Networks (not Facebook) and Development

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 07/29/2009 - 08:50

World-wandering BoingBoing editor Xeni Jardin writes about a video from the "What Would the Poor Say: Debates in Aid Evaluation," NYU conference, where Leonard Wantchekoz presents on the importance of trust in development:

Video: "If You Don't Trust People You Know, It's Over."Leonard Wantchekon on the Lack of Intra-Community Trust in Benin from DRI on Vimeo.

Beyond Crowdsourcing

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 07/16/2009 - 19:56

I am weary of the term "crowdsourcing." Now, I'm not against the concept. I think small, bite-sized acts of service and kindness can make huge differences in the right situations. Indeed, it's the social-benefits business model of The Extraordinaries, and is at the core of what Yochai Benkler means when he discusses the power of "peer production" in The Wealth of Networks:

People began to apply behaviors they practice in their living rooms or in the elevator — "Here, let me lend you a hand," or "What did you think of last night’s speech?" — to production problems that had, throughout the twentieth century, been solved on the model of Ford and General Motors. The rise of peer production is neither mysterious nor fickle when viewed through this lens. It is as rational and efficient given the objectives and material conditions of information production at the turn of the twenty-first century as the assembly line was for the conditions at the turn of the twentieth.

But the term "crowdsourcing" itself is outdated. It presumes that there's some central organization doing the sourcing (paralleling "outsourcing"), and it seems to get applied in all sorts of roles where that's not relevant.

Academic view on secure communication in repressive regimes

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 06/15/2009 - 14:54

iRevolution has a good, academic-style breakdown of challenges and communication technologies for use to communicate securely within repressive regimes:

It covers a lot of ground, balancing ease of use against level of security, and is looking for input!

ICT and the Iran Election

Submitted by Jon on Sun, 06/14/2009 - 10:01

The Daily Dish reposts a call to action from Twitter: ALL internet & mobile networks are cut. We ask everyone in Tehran to go onto their rooftops and shout ALAHO AKBAR in protest #IranElection, and comments:

That a new information technology could be improvised for this purpose so swiftly is a sign of the times. It reveals in Iran what the Obama campaign revealed in the United States. You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.

Other coverage at Global Voices and Daily Kos present videos and links to photos of protests coming from Tehran.

ICT4Dev Reading List

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 05/28/2009 - 10:54

Here's a hastily-constructed Amazon store of some of the books and essays I've read which provide great insight and contrarian positions to modern development approaches, backed up with hard data, well-written, and sometimes painful reminders of the darker stories of US's history with international development:

What's Next

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 04/07/2009 - 12:34

Tonight's ICT4D meetup asks the question, "What's Next?" While it's always risky to predict the future, I think the groundwork for the next decade is largely stable.

Mobile is globally today where the Internet was in the US in the early nineties -- if you wanted access, you could find it. It might be difficult, costly, or shared, but it was available. Think of the changes in the Internet over the past decade and a half -- we've moved from a largely text-only interface with gopher, newsgroups and email being the key players to the web, and now the rich, ajax-y web 2.0.

I think a similar growth could happen (and already is, to some extent) in the global mobile market. As access to mobile networks spread, the possibility to have more and exciting applications filter down to even the cheapest handsets becomes more likely.

Imagine a simple survey app that received, presented, and then encoded, compressed and encrypted questions and answers through SMS automatically, instead of the laborious current manual encoding used in election monitoring. That alone, enabled on the basic cell phone platforms would revolutionize data reporting by reducing training time while also improving accuracy, human rights protections (via encryption), and reducing the opportunities for falsified data to be put into the system.

Mobiles Vs Computers

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 03/04/2009 - 18:08

Cell Phone in rural India
Are Mobile Phones the Winner?

February's Technology Salon was on the (false) dichotomy of mobiles versus computers in development. Thankfully due to the high caliber of all the attendees, we were able to establish and move quickly past the problem that so often plagues the actual projects and "real world" debates - which is better? Some people will claim mobile phones are better due to their low barriers to entry, but then you see low-cost computing and netbooks providing that same promise to computers. Others will argue that you'll never write a school paper on a cell phone.

The reality is, the entire frame of this argument is off on every possible angle.

First, there are clear cases where one technology is better suited to a task than another. I'd no more write long papers on a cell phone than I would carry around a laptop to use as a personal communications device. However there's a large chunk of tasks where either tool will suffice, and which "should" be used is more a factor of the local conditions than the features of any one technology.

Secondly -- and more importantly -- this discussion is tool-centric. We have a hammer (two, in this case) and are going around the development landscape searching for nails we can drive home, and it's a race between the two hammers to see who can hit the most nails. This is inherently the wrong way to apply ICT in development.

We shouldn't be arguing about mobiles vs computers, or even OLPC XOs vs Intel ClassMates, or Windows vs Linux, we should be arguing about specific problems in development, what tools could help, how, and for what costs (training time, implementation and infrastucture gotchas, as well as equipment costs).

Rescuing the baby from the thrown-out bathwater

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 09/04/2008 - 10:19

Worldchanging's Jeremy Faludi calls it "reverse-leapfrogging", but is looking for a better name. It's reviving or importing concepts that used to exist:
Green architects in the last twenty years have learned passive-solar design tricks from pre-industrial buildings, both historic ones in their own countries and contemporary buildings in non-industrial societies. (For instance, cool towers come from vernacular middle-eastern architecture.)

Many Paths Leading to the "Base of the Pyramid"

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 07/08/2008 - 11:34

Paths to the Pyramid
BoP Spending
(on Flickr by Merkur*)

(on Flickr by Merkur*)NextBillion, which spends most of its time praising social entrepreneurship, comments on Michael Edwards' new book, Just Another Emperor, which attacks rampant "philanthrocapitalism" (market solutions to development problems);
"Despite its flaws, Just Another Emperor does a superb job of fulfilling Edward's main intent - deflating the hype around philanthrocapitalism without denying it its place as a tool for combating poverty. Edwards reminds us that the free market cannot solve all social ills and inequalities. While noting the benefits of approaches championed by social entrepreneurs and venture philanthropists, he suggests that these movements complement - rather than replace - non-market-based approaches to poverty and sustainability."

Simple Global Pleasures

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 07/02/2008 - 10:30

You might remember the Youtube video of this guy named Matt who did this silly dance and captured it on video everywhere he went a few years ago?

Well.. he's back, with friends.

It's a good video to watch when you worry about things like war, unfair trade practices, poor foreign policy, dictatorship, and so on -- it reminds you that people are globally friendly, silly, happy folk if given a chance. Which is always true, but not always easy to remember.

Robert Strauss vs. Peace Corps: Round 2

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 04/29/2008 - 15:52

You may remember Strauss from his NYT article damning the Peace Corps back in January. It made the point that the increasing numbers of volunteers is decreasing the agency's effectiveness and that the agency itself was too stuck on its mission to improve and adapt. Strauss has been a volunteer, and also a country director, with the Peace Corps, and I as a returned volunteer can agree with some of his points.

He's back now in April with a much longer attack in Foreign, where he sets up a series of strawmen to knock down.

For example;

"The Peace Corps Is a Potent Diplomatic Weapon"

No. With diplomats stuck inside barricaded compounds or loath to venture from expatriate residential ghettos, a Peace Corps volunteer is likely to be the only representative of the U.S. government that poor, rural populations ever see. As the State Department cuts back on its public diplomacy and cultural exchange programs, the Peace Corps' predominantly young volunteers wind up carrying more and more of the responsibility for demonstrating that the United States still has good intentions abroad.

DC International Development Events Calendar

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 04/08/2008 - 17:42

Big thanks to GWU's Organization for International Development for importing their events calendar into google calendars. I was getting pretty close to doing that by myself.

Now, if SID/W and World Affairs Council would do the same, I'd be scheduled for life!

Good People Day 2008

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 04/03/2008 - 22:45

I like the good people day idea all about giving props where due. Since I'll be nose-down in work preparing for the upcoming Global Youth Service Day April 25-28, let me point out the amazing youth around the world who do the real work on GYSD as some people who rock. Last year we had over three million youth in over 100 countries taking up projects to improve their community -- and expect the same or more this year.

Slacktivisism for Fair Trade (Updated)

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 02/07/2008 - 09:46

My friend over at Esperanza en Accion in Nicaragua, has let people know that someone is attempting aland grab against a cooperative clothing factory, Nueva Vida, that'sone of her suppliers. Nueva Vida's supporters are asking that we email Nicaragua's first lady, Rosario Murillo, who has been "a strong defender of poor women throughout the country" asking for her support. They also ask that we forward the story widely so that others can do the same.

Who's to blame for a bad loan?

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 12/19/2007 - 10:16

A good friend of mine has condensed a lot of good, critical thoughts on lending -- from the subprime market to the World Bank, into one good blog post, riffing off of an exploration of the subprime disaster at

Nicaraguan Artesania for Giftmas!

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 12/10/2007 - 14:59

Esperanza en Accion, a fair-trade, social justice organization working with Nicaraguan artisans, has a huge selection of items in their online eBay store, just in time for that last hard-to-find gift!

Buying Fair-trade of course is one of the best ways you can support global development and solidarity movements.

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