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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:

Privacy, Trust, NymWars, and Social Change

Submitted by Jon on Sat, 08/27/2011 - 09:26

Social change takes trust. You trust the thought leaders of the movement, you trust some set of information around the issue, you trust those who work with you to support you and not to expose anyone to undue risk.

Social change also takes privacy. If you are really pushing boundaries, you are at risk - of physical violence, imprisonment, or worse. There's value in being very public in this space as well, but that doesn't mean there's not a stage where protecting yourself through some layer of privacy is a better plan.

Social change also takes voice - citizen media platforms, and use of existing social networking sites which already have global scale and the ability to amplify a message.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of bickering around privacy, pseudonymity, and social networks - Facebook naturally, but even Google Plus is blocking pseudonyms from using the site reliably. I got tired of re-hashing the very valuable differences between using one's own name, being completely anonymous, and using a pen name - a well-storied way of getting an idea out while saving one's own neck:

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.

So - What Next?

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 08/10/2011 - 15:46

The events in London over the past few days have been deeply interesting in the wake of last month's conversation on mobile and online activism during and after #ArabSpring. In this case, the actors are different, but the response patterns are similar - the embattled government pushing on technology providers to share private data or turn off mobile messaging services. In this case, it's RIM/Blackberry in the middle, with calls from MPs to "curfew" Blackberry messaging, and RIM itself offering to help policy by sharing message contents. This promptly led to the Blackberry site being hacked, with the hacker posting:

"We have access to your database which includes your employees information; e.g - Addresses, Names, Phone Numbers etc. - now if u assist the police, we _WILL_ make this information public and pass it onto rioters ... do you really want a bunch of angry youths on your employees doorsteps?"

Obviously, that's not a very nice thing to do, particularly considering it's unlikely any of these employees had much to do with this decision in the first place.

The lines are not quite as clear as one would like, though. All protests are messy, and it's rarely clear who is in the right. Many countries claim to be representative democracies of one flavor or another. If youth were protesting a regime in yet another Middle East/North African country, we would be globally shaming RIM/Blackberry for cavorting with the government. Of course, in the case of London, it seems to be more a gang of thugs and looters than a political statement.

The challenge, of course, is that the technology vulnerabilities might be useful to authorities during a riot, but are also useful to authoritarian governments in squelching a revolution. Not unlike wikileaks, you don't get to pick and choose who benefits from the technology, or who is made vulnerable by it.

Ashoka Changemakers is hosting a competition supported by Google to source innovative ideas in the Citizen Media space solving some of this tension around privacy, speech, and trust. There's some amazing thoughtwork in the space getting recorded at the Ashoka News and Knowledge blog.

All of that is a long introduction to the better-late-than-never summary of the July ICT4D Meetup. You know that it's a good technology discussion when it turns into a people discussion, and so went our conversation around Online Activism after #ArabSpring : What's Next?.

Our panelists discussed the strange role of being an Egyptian following along from abroad via social media, the roles of traditional and new media in civic engagement, and examples of online activism around the world, from Azerbaijan to Spain.

The core topic we kept coming back to was that the excitement around new technologies was justified, social media is a tool, not a movement. So while a cat-and-mouse game around technology will likely continue, the core of any social change is the people involved, not whatever tools they are using. Check out the twitter stream here.

Remember to join us online for future ICT4D meetups and get on the email list for ICT4Drinks!

Vote for Economic Opportunity!

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 07/20/2011 - 09:29

Thanks to amazing work by eBay's TOP team and Gray Productions, we have not one, but two fab widgets to help you vote for innovative market-based solutions that create economic opportunity! Vote on Facebook here:, or check out the embedded widget here:

July 14: Citizen Media Day?

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 07/14/2011 - 08:00

If May 3rd gets to be World Press Freedom Day, then after today's events, July 14 (in addition to already being Bastille Day) should be Citizen Media Day.

The "celebrations" really started yesterday, with Ashoka Changemakers (with the support of Google) launching a global competition (fully supported in nine languages, no less) to source innovative ideas in citizen media. I've got to say, I love how the timeline goes "backwards" in Right-to-Left languages like Arabic. Many thanks to our work with Ashoka Israel in launching Kikar (loosely, "Market square") in Hebrew.

Today, the Changemakers blog is buzzing with amazing citizen media stories from Ashoka fellows and others, leading up to a #SocEntChat today on Twitter at 2pm EDT.

Later in the day, at 5:30pm, I will be moderating a panel on "Online Activism after #ArabSpring : What's Next?" - there are a few seats still available, more information and RSVP at . Follow along on twitter with the hashtag #AAS, and there's a remote possibility we may be able to livestream the event.

Finally, we get to wind down at Circa Bistro with a happy hour co-hosted with ICTWorks - information and RSVP here:

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?

Celebrating World Press Freedom Day #wpfd with a linkdump

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 05/03/2011 - 08:47

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. To celebrate my ability to post things I find inspiring to the Internet (where as many as 10 people other than my mother might read it (Hi Mom - happy mother's day in advance!)), here is a collection of tangentially related links on freedom, privacy, and the role of ICT in press freedom and citizen voice.

Does Facebook have int'l development impact? (What about SMS? )

Freedom of the press in India:

Finally, someone is building an SMS listserv:

How governments censor:

Getting around government censorship:

Nearly half of NYT reports have sourced WikiLeaks so far in 2011:

The US government doesn't think it needs a warrant to search electronic communications:

Live from Uganda -- political unrest, strikes, and an attempt to block Facebook and Twitter traffic: , One ISP stands its ground:!/MTNUGANDACARE/status/58844526369976320

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