June 2009

Packets, Please: Government monitoring and #IranElection

Wired reminds us that we can rail against and complain about the intrusive, privacy-destroying and free-speech-threatening monitoring that Iran has been employing against the protestors over the past few months, but we have to remember two things. First, US and European companies provided the hardware and software to Iran for them to do this. Second - our own government does the same thing, and we should stop it.

Regarding the first problem, bipartisan Senators are proposing a ban on government contracts to companies caught selling such technology to Iran, and it's technically illegal for US companies anyhow (which might not be stopping everyone, and appears to be using Secure Computing's (now McAfee) SmartFilter according to the Open Net Initiative's testing.

The answer for "I don't get Twitter"

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; http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2009/06/16/state-department-to-twitter-keep-… :

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.

Academic view on secure communication in repressive regimes

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

http://irevolution.wordpress.com/2009/06/15/digital-security/

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

ICT and the Iran Election

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.

Mobiles vs. Computers in Education

This is my response to the current EduTech Debate on the role of mobiles Vs. computers in education. Join the conversation and disagree with me!

I'm sure I sound like a broken record by this point; but there are roles for both mobiles and computers (be it 1:1 computing as with the OLPC, or 1-computer classrooms, or simply computer labs). Mobiles have high penetration rates (but how young? elementary school?) but limited capabilities beyond 1:1 or expensive 1:many communication. Computers are much more fragile and require more infrastucture, but have such a wealth of educational software and information (especially if you add in the Internet).

Neither are silver bullets to heal a failing education system, but both could play a role in extending education (call-backs to listen in to class for rural youth unable to attend school regularly?) if implemented with a reasonable and maintainable budget and good integration into the existing education processes.

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Of Engineers and Kings: The Humanitarian Technology Challenge

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

(From of course Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There; read all of The Walrus and the Carpenter at http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/walrus.html )

IEEE and the UN Foundation's Humanitarian Technology Challenge is a difficult marriage. You have a room chock full of detail-oriented technologists and a crowd of technophile international development/humanitarian aid practicioners who have seen both the promise of the "right" technology solution and the expensive and much more common failures of techno-centric approaches.

The HTC has done a laudable job in extracting some of the harder problems still haunting development which technology can help with - settling on reliable energy, data connectivity (particularly for health providers) and patient ID and health records management.

The breakout session I attended got trapped in definitions, a problem endemic of the challenges of shaking engineers and humanitarians together in a jar; very small, specific problems getting expanded and divided into multiple and occasionally more general topics with an overwhelming range of potential solutions that may have little applicability, either because the technology has been customized or the problem misunderstood.

The other, more difficult challenge is that the handful of largely DC-based humanitarians have to be the voice of the billions who are intended to benefit from these technologies. We need a group of nay-sayers, critics and realists constantly poking holes in our ideas. Kid-powered electrical generators for hospitals could reduce child mortality at the cost of early childhood education.

Data connectivity and electronic patient ID record management has to be balanced with privacy and cultural sensitivity when even going for HIV testing could be a stigma attached to violent responses. Some of these pitfalls we have experience with, some we can extrapolate, but an unknowable set of other risks and problems are out there, and I worry that solutions we're proposing from the beautiful, air-conditioned, wifi-saturated National Academies building sitting between the US National Mall, the State Department, and the Kennedy Center in downtown DC will
simply not be rugged enough, will not gracefully degrade, or will miss a key need.

That all being said; the organizers did a good job with setting the conference up. The speaker selections combined some amazing humanitarian aid / international development and activism success stories where technology has played a key roll with high-level engineering discussions of the design challenges and goals.

The main problem I felt was a miscommunication between the people who had been working hard to define the problems and the flood of new participants invited to attend the conference entering midstream, without the time (or suggestions) to dive through the 15-20 page documents that had already been compiled; leading to lots of wheel-spinning in covering the same definition problems.

I am hopeful that through the various online forums that have been set up to continue, that we will work through those initial speedbumps and end up with at least a few good solutions combining some engineering know-how, business acumen, and humanitarian/grassroots knowledge.