Social Change - to go, please

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 07/01/2010 - 09:50

Cross-posted at the FrontlineSMS Blog

The recent Technology Salons have been on local and sectoral implementations of mobile technology in development.

Mobile is hardly "new" anymore, but we're seeing increasing tools for peer-to-peer communications and decentralized development. Instead of SMS reporting for mHealth metrics or election observation (both amazingly powerful), we have Ushahidi and a team of volunteers from colleges and Haitian diaspora communities across the world saving lives in Haiti after the earthquake by synthesizing and translating reports from on the ground into actionable, trustable pieces of information.

Instead of training-and-visit agricultural extension work, we have tools like Patatat which are building group email lists through SMS messaging, enabling farmers (or anyone) to collaborate on their work, market prices, crop diseases, and so on - with increasingly little need for anything at the center. And of course there's twitter, which, while still "centralized" as a website, enables un-mediated communication amongst basically anyone in the world with a cell phone and a good text-messaging plan.

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..

ICT4D Meetup in Austin during SXSW

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 03/12/2010 - 18:13

ICT4D Meetup, SXSW2010

In Austin for South By SouthWest? Join folks interested in ICT for development at the Gingerman (3rd and Lavaca) from 4-7pm on Sunday! I'll bring my OLPC for anyone up to the challenge of figuring out how to open it for the first time, and we'll talk mapping, SMS, crisis response and more!

Mobile Social Networks

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 08/24/2009 - 15:42

Something is still missing in the world of mobiles and social networks.

I strongly believe in the power of social networks in development, be they online or offline. They create communities of practice from the local to the global level, which promotes better understanding of what a best practice is versus what is just a good theory that doesn't reliably work. You also have amazing, unprecedented access through mobile phones and SMS.

But there's nothing solidly connecting the two (unless I'm missing something?)

The answer for "I don't get Twitter"

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 06/16/2009 - 07:46

The next time somebody cracks wise about Twitter, points to the vast numbers of Twitter Orphan Accounts, or otherwise belittles it, I will point them to this Twitter Blog posting:

A critical network upgrade must be performed to ensure continued operation of Twitter. In coordination with Twitter, our network host had planned this upgrade for tonight. However, our network partners at NTT America recognize the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran. Tonight's planned maintenance has been rescheduled to tomorrow between 2-3p PST (1:30a in Iran).

As much as I fear what happens after the honeymoon with SMS and social media under repressive governments, currently they provide an amazing tool for immediate news even during crisis, citizen voice and discussion.

Update: The State Department is now involved; :

By necessity, the US is staying hands off of the election drama playing out in Iran, and officials say they are not providing messages to Iranians or “quarterbacking” the disputed election process.

But they do want to make sure the technology is able to play its sorely-needed role in the crisis, which is why the State Department is advising social networking sites to make sure their networks stay up and running for Iranians to use them and helping them stay ahead of anyone who would try to shut them down.

Update on Guatemala, Twitter arrests, and citizen media

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 05/19/2009 - 11:34

As always, Ethan Zuckerman brings together all the threads surrounding the Guatemala protests, including information about the arrested Twitter user and some "trending topics" muckraking:

I ran a little tool I developed a few weeks back to check the frequency with which phrases and hashtags appear on Twitter. #escandalogt isn’t hugely frequent, registering at 0.052% - compared to #swineflu, for instance, which was running at over 2% at the height of hype/hysteria. What’s interesting is that #escandalogt is about as frequent as several of the tags listed on Twitter’s “Trending Topics”, getting more use than #fixreplies, #GoogleFail and #theoffice, all currently featured on the right sidebar. It’ll be interesting to see whether #escandalogt emerges there… or whether this is a sign that those topics aren’t entirely algorithmically generated and some human curation is involved.

Guatemala and Citizen Media

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 05/13/2009 - 09:35

You might have heard about the posthumously released video by a Guatemalan lawyer accusing his president of assassination in the event of his death, for not participating in a money-laundering scheme. If not, read about the video on boingboing.

It's ignited a full-blown protest against corruption in a country known for not being kind to activism. There are live protests ongoing and rumored additional strikes and protests against the government and its narco-trafficking connections, and a very active online media component (local TV stations are avoiding the events like the plague, but online outlet Libertopolis is broadcasting the protests, and there is a twitter hashtag (#escandaloGT). Read more on different citizen media and follow updates at boingboing's coverage of the scandal, and CNN's slanted coverage: "Guatemala rejects allegations of role in lawyer's death," which follows Guatemala's own media's tactic of not speaking about the mass protests:

Twittering about a Revolution

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 04/15/2009 - 08:03

There's been a lot of noise about the role of Twitter in the recent Moldova protests. Ethan Zuckerman took it on himself to quantify the data. It's not as glamorous as blindly claiming that twitter did (or did not) ignite the protests based on some stories, but it does provide a good sanity-check:

My bitter, cynical hope had been to demonstrate that the conversation switched from a small Romanian-language conversation about the actual protest events to a self-congratulation festival in the English-language twittersphere. Good thing we’ve got data to prove me wrong. [...] I’d expected to see “twitter” emerge as one of the most popular terms by Wednesday or Thursday, and to see the conversation shift into English. [...] But by Thursday, Twitter’s out of the top 20 entirely and “comunistii” ranks behind Moldova and Chisinau. So yes, the conversation on Wednesday - the busiest day with over 1,000 authors - included lots of non-Moldovans. But the conversation quickly shifted back to the political standoff.

That being said, there are under 200 reported actual twitter users inside Moldova; so while the conversation avoided turning into the twitter version of back-patting, it also is not the twitter flash-mob we're looking for.

Worse, governments are getting more sophisticated in limiting the utility of mobile phones for this kind of disruption, as Evgeny Morozov at ForeignPolicy reminds us:

I've just spoken to a Moldovan friend who is himself a big technology fan; according to him, there is little to none cellphone coverage in the square itself (turning off cellphone coverage in protest areas is a trick that was also used by the Belarusian authorities to diffuse 2006 protests in Minsk's central square), so protesters have to leave it to post updates to Twitter via GPRS technology on their mobiles.

It seems likely that next time around, the government will also make sure GPRS is hobbled as well, and there were reports that the government was strong-arming local ISPs into restricting outside connections.

So while Twitter was involved, it seems too early to claim it's victory, as both Evgeny Morozov and Ethan Zuckerman seem to agree on. There was no sign-in form at the protest with a "Where did you hear about this? ( ) Twitter ( ) Facebook ( ) SMS (non-twitter) ( ) Friend ... " so we can't really be sure of the impact of any one social utility over another (though we could do some interesting things with Facebook photo tagging perhaps?), and this will continue to haunt any attempts to link online social media movements with offline action.

That's not the only story here, though. While I'm excited about turning online interaction into offline action, I strongly believe that the lower-hanging fruit in social media sites is real-time, mass reporting of events. You may get a thousand different viewpoints, but you're guaranteed to not just get one filtered and sanitized report. As Evgeny Morozov notes;

There are also a few moving English-language Twitter posts like this - "in #pman a grenade thrown by the police has torn apart one of the protester's leg"- that would surely be perused by foreign journalists.

We saw the role of SMS and Twitter in getting the news out about the Mumbai bombings in November 2008. As microblogging sites get increasingly sophisticated (or their users settle on hashtags and location update formats) I think we can expect to see fast local news coming not from traditional media but from our peers. Without editorial oversight or research/verification, we'll have to rely on mass numbers of twitterers reporting on each event to present an evenhanded view, but overall I see this move towards instant sharing of information as an amazing development that will only getbetter and more interesting, both in the case of free speech and media, and for mobile possibilities for development.

Map of Popular Super Bowl Words Used on Twitter - Interactive Graphic -

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 02/03/2009 - 12:33

A map of the terms used most frequently by Twitter users around the nation as the Steelers took on the Cardinals in the Super Bowl.

Governments use Twitter for Emergency Alerts, Traffic Notices and More - Government Technology

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 01/15/2009 - 11:09

Agencies help move free microblogging service beyond social media novelty.

What's happening in Mumbai: Twitter and Real-time Citizen Media

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 11/26/2008 - 13:43

Initial reports are now showing up on news sites; this very light-on-details article on BBC seems to be the first up on major news sites - but it's been burning up the SMS and immediate-update "microblog" site, Twitter, for over an hour.

We're seeing a human tragedy and the slow emergence of an amazingly powerful social tool - real time citizen reporting. People are sending in reports, pictures, and videos of on-the-ground events as they unfold, scooping all major news sources - because what traditional media outlet could possibly keep up with a reaction time measured merely by the speed of information?

Old media has a never-ending struggle to maintain its relevance - this is going to be big. Where were you when "CNN Headline News" became outdated?

Update Speaking of CNN being outdated; Global Voices now has an article on Mumbai up, based largely on Twitter sources

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