Mobile4Dev

Stop doing Technology for Good So Badly.

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 Corps 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.

Choice is the Challenge - Mobiles for Data

Read my write-up from the Mobiles for Data Collection Technology Salon:

You might think that the topic of collecting data via mobile devices would be a rather dry discussion of data management and statistical methodology. You would be very, very wrong. The Technology Salon all but came to blows as we wrestled with privacy issues, total costs of ownership, and other elephants in the room.

When you combine some of the brightest mobile-for-development minds from projects stretching from agriculture to health to democracy, all of whom are facing increasingly common problems, perhaps that's to be expected. Stories were shared around the basic challenges of data collection, picking the system to use, and the complications of different sectors.

Read more:  Mobiles for Data Collection Technology Salon

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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:

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The Art of Failing

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.

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Tech Trends: Come discuss at Digital Capital Week!

I will be discussing the tech trends from 2011 and looking forward to what 2012 holds for us with a fine group of panelists during DCWeek. Our panel still has some free tickets left - RSVP at http://www.meetup.com/net2dc/

Want to get in the action early? Join our thread over at Quora.

My fellow panelists are Nisha Chittal, Colin Delany, Bob Fine, and Bonnie Shaw, and Roshani Kothari is going to have the arduous task of wrangling us as our moderator.

Read more about the event at DCWeek: http://bit.ly/dcweektechtrends1108

So - What Next?

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!

Online Activism after #ArabSpring : What's Next?

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 (http://www.meetup.com/intlrel-76/events/23103221/) 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

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?
http://www.ictworks.org/news/2011/05/04/does-facebook-have-any-internat… (What about SMS? http://researchspace.csir.co.za/dspace/bitstream/10204/3419/1/Butgereit… )

Freedom of the press in India: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/28/technology/28internet.html

Finally, someone is building an SMS listserv: http://www.mobileactive.org/smsall-growth-sms-mailing-list-pakistan-1

How governments censor: http://www.cpj.org/reports/2011/05/the-10-tools-of-online-oppressors.php

Getting around government censorship: http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=383&report=97

Nearly half of NYT reports have sourced WikiLeaks so far in 2011: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2011/04/over-half-2011s-new-york-…

The US government doesn't think it needs a warrant to search electronic communications: http://www.aclu.org/blog/free-speech-technology-and-liberty/does-govern…

Live from Uganda -- political unrest, strikes, and an attempt to block Facebook and Twitter traffic: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/04/19/uganda-government-attempts-to-… , One ISP stands its ground: https://twitter.com/#!/MTNUGANDACARE/status/58844526369976320

Rebuilding cell networks in Libya

Via MobileActive, I got to reading this article at the WSJ.

Unsurprisingly, the Libyan cell network is built to be Tripoli-centric, "giving him and his intelligence agents full control over phones and Internet" according to the WSJ. If that's not a stark reminder of the challenges of using SMS and mobiles in human rights work that I've been concerned about, I don't know what is.

The brilliant response here has been to wrest control over segments of the Libyan mobile network. This has taken some outside effort, external government support, and massive funding - it is, at least for now, successful at creating an independent domestic network with limited external access:

A team led by a Libyan-American telecom executive has helped rebels hijack Col. Moammar Gadhafi's cellphone network and re-establish their own communications.

The new network, first plotted on an airplane napkin and assembled with the help of oil-rich Arab nations, is giving more than two million Libyans their first connections to each other and the outside world after Col. Gadhafi cut off their telephone and Internet service about a month ago.

That March cutoff had rebels waving flags to communicate on the battlefield. The new cellphone network, opened on April 2, has become the opposition's main tool for communicating from the front lines in the east and up the chain of command to rebel brass hundreds of miles away.

The Jasmine Revolution Jon Tue, 04/19/2011 - 11:16

This is brilliant, and a bit funny. Until some innocent person taking a stroll is killed for insurgency.

A long quote from this blog by way of Warren Ellis and BoingBoing, emphases mine:

In summary, several Chinese language, but overseas based, websites have been blogging on the creation of a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China. This has been motivated, of course, by events in MENA, and the timing has been significant because it has coincided with two important political conferences in Beijing, but it appears to have no real-world substance whatsoever, to have begun as a hoax at best, and to exist only in cyberspace, and cyberspace outside China at that. But the interesting bit is the real world effect it is having inside China, and the momentum it is generating.

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