January 2012

Against Appification

My wife and I bought a new TV for ourselves this holiday season. Well, to be more accurate, we bought a large monitor (which happens to be a TV) for our media computer. We long ago gave up on our local cable monopoly, so its use is split between digging through the increasingly meager offerings of online video rental services and watching a screensaver-ified flow of our travel favorite photos. Sometimes maybe using the live 2D->3D conversion thing. I never said we weren't both dorks.

That being said, the TV comes with, as most new TVs seem to, an app store. And it sucks. By gods, the offerings are horrible, the interface is via the clunkiest of all possible remotes, reminiscent more of an 80s-era cellular phone than a 21st century Internet-enabled TV control device. Once you manage to navigate into the app store, there are but a scant few useful apps and a smattering of crappy games and info apps.

Don't get me wrong - I'm excited about new form factors of devices, and computational power showing up in more devices - but give me a device that I can use and that is multifunctional at its heart. It may have a nice skin and intended purpose, but technology changes rapidly, and I don't want to churn through hardware devices at the speed of change in software.

Part of this is that companies must accept failure -- or at least change -- as a possibility. Your framework, support, upgrades and management of a walled garden app store may be fantastic, but what if you ditch your entire business unit? (HP, I'm looking at you).

Apple has provided a solid model of the benefits of the app path, but few companies can match Apple in their abilities to keep up with the store - and even then, it suffers from being a disneyfied (http://phandroid.com/2010/03/16/iphone-is-a-sterile-disney-fied-walled-…), tightly controlled and kid-friendly store. The Android market is certainly a bit more wild and wooley, but that creates a new foothold for innovation.

This disneyfication is unavoidable for any centralized store, since that centralization focuses responsibility on to the ones who make decisions about what goes in to the store and what stays out - which ends up being increasingly restrictive and eventually anti-competitive.

As Dave Winer points out at Scripting News, this is a classic cycle in technology over control (http://scripting.com/stories/2011/12/31/theUninternet.html). This trope affects the continuum between being able to compile your own software to being able to download whatever software you like all the way to only having access to pre-approved app-store apps, but its influence also is seen in web services and consumer electronics.

There's a value to the app store model, as there's a value to Disneyland. You know everything is tailored, tweaked, padded and sanitized. If something goes wrong, it won't be your problem -- but the cost for this level of safety is freedom. Your iPhone works great, but just try to swap out its SIM card for an affordable local provider in another country, or, really, do anything that Apple hasn't approved of, despite if it would be useful or not to you. It's not called jailbreaking for nothing.

Reflecting on Haiti, Disasters, and Technology

Two years ago, in the aftermath of the January, 2010 earthquake, hackers and social activists led a charge and saved lives in Haiti from across the sea. Ushahidi remindes us of the scale of this by reposting a blog from the process. Re-reading this through me into a reflective state on how far ICT4D has come in the past few years, and how much more value it brings to the table.

The initial, amazing outpouring of support for earthquake victims in Haiti was heartwarming. The worldwide aid response, not without some hiccups and valid criticism, went well.

The one thread through the global response to the earthquake has been the supporting role that technology has played. At a basic level, SMS fundraising will no longer be seen as a pipe-dream. With deeper impact, however, was the direct role that technology played. We saw the ability of hackers with good hearts around the world to lend a helping hand through infrastructural projects like Ushahidi and Open Street Map as well as engagement tools like The Extaordinaries' iPhone app. Inveneo's ICT_Works blog goes into great detail on the The Rise of the Voluntary Humanitarian Technologist in Disaster Response:


Top Blog Posts from 2011

Not a very bloggy year, but I like to think I made up for quantity with quality. By far and away, the most popular post I wrote in 2011 was Privacy, Trust, NymWars, and Social Change, in which I tried to clarify why pseudonyms are valuable in online civic discourse.

Coming in second, Monitoring and Evaluation is broken. Let's really break it. - a gripe on the somewhat depressing state of M&E, especially in the tech4dev world, based on a discussion at the DC Technology Salon.

In third place, we have my calling on the #Occupy crowd to get beyond building sustainable tent cities and get down to loca, domestic and glocal action: In the Global Mirror, the #OWS 99% looks a lot like the 1%

Following on from that, a piece calling for voting support for Changemakers' Economic Opportunity competition.

Finishing fifth, The Art of Failing, where I discuss DC's own FailFaire and the value of talking about projects that didn't go so well.

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

In seventh place, Apples that are neither green nor easy to digest., a discussion about Mike Daisey's coverage of Apple, which is thankfully back in the news and causing change!

Eight is indeed great, with my post advertising my panel at DCWeek 2011 on Tech Trends

Ninth is The Jasmine Revolution, a fascinating social media blip in China.

Finally at tenth spot is Online Activism after #ArabSpring : What's Next?, an event at IREX I moderated for the DC ICT4D Meetup.

It was, it seems, a busy year.

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

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.