Development Theory

Time to Ideate!

Pivot-Twist-Dev takes the classic "pivot-twist" approach for idea pitches of taking a familiar concept and twisting it in a new way to the international development space. You might get ideas like "IT'S LIKE TINDER, BUT FOR NATURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT" or "IT'S LIKE FITNESS TRACKERS, BUT FOR SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP." Are they good? Only a pilot project could possibly tell.

You're welcome?

The promises of a decentralized currency: Think Locally and Buy Globally?

I once rented a part of a house that had been, well, not fully cleaned out from the previous occupants. It was a house full of hackers that had been variously occupied by friends and friends-of-friends for almost a decade as they passed through Austin on their way from or to new lives, which is to say, it had, well, "character".

One of the odder things left behind by the previous inhabitants was a literal pile of Final Fantasy boxes, completely intact save for the all-important registration codes. A bit of digging uncovered a fascinating tale of cross-border, tax- and fee-free value transfer. The former occupant, let's call him "Bob" was engaged in a business proposition with a colleague based in South Korea, let's call her "Alice." Whatever version of the RPG Final Fantasy had just been released in the States (only). This had proved very difficult to pirate, causing a huge untapped demand in Korea. Koreans, however, had been happily hacking away at another RPG game which was only just now catching on Stateside. So, Bob would tear off and destroy these registration codes, emailing the codes themselves to Alice in Korea. Alice, in exchange, would provide Bob powerful and rare in-game items for the newly-popular game - these were of less value to the Korean market, as it was saturated with players and therefore items, but there was no arbitrage market into the States -- before Alice and Bob, at least. Bob could then sell these on online grey markets for such items, effectively creating a way for both Alice and Bob to profit (rather lucratively, from my understanding) from local markets, and transfer value across borders without incurring bank costs, wire fees, or, for that matter, taxes. This setup lasted for as long as both were able to extract value from the arbitrage process, but obviously wasn't able to scale or even easily re-adapt to new opportunities.

With the rise and increasing stability of bitcoin as an actual contender for a digital currency, the global market suddenly starts looking a lot more local.

Distributed Solutions for Distributed Attacks

Google has been making headlines with their shiny Project Shield which wraps PageSpeed with other tools to defend sites against denial of service attacks. The history of the denial of service, however, runs deep, and underlines that no centralized response to it will ever be able to cost-effectively scale against a distributed attack.

Let's rewind back to the 90s. Denial of service was a very, very different thing then - it was a tool for free expression, not one used to mute dissenting opinions as it is today.
In the dot-com boomtimes of the late 90s, I was absolutely fascinated by the digital protests that sprung up in reaction to Mexico's treatment of the Zapatista Movement. Floodnet was an activist art project by the Electronic Disturbance Theater. Floodnet was simply a website you could visit and it would direct your browser to constantly reload pages on the website of the Mexcian government. In addition to overloading the website with thousands of requests from you and our fellow programmers, you could add in a political message with each page load, to force the government's server to fill their log files with messages like "human rights not found."

"The FloodNet application of error log spamming is conceptual Internet art. This is your chance to voice your political concerns on a targeted server. [...] The server may respond to your intentional mistake with a message like: "human_rights not found on this server." So by creatively selecting phases, you can make the server voice your concerns. It may not use the kind of resources that the constant reloading uses (FloodNet automatically does that too), but it is sassy conceptualism and it invites you to play with clever statements while the background applet is running." (via http://www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/ZapTact.html)

Floodnet used DoS attacks to protest the Mexican Government
Floodnet used DoS attacks to protest the Mexican Government


This original "denial of service" attack was seen as the digital mirror of a classic "sit-in" protest. It was a way for a David to strike back at a Goliath through technology. However, this, ahem, "sassy" political activism began an arms race that today is dominated by Goliaths alone. Instead of a tool of protest, denial of service attacks are today tools of retribution and ways to mute dissenting voices. They are massively automated and distributed, and are run not by rowdy bands of dissidents, but by well-organized for-hire groups (https://krebsonsecurity.com/2013/05/ragebooter-legit-ddos-service-or-fe…) and even from government infrastructures.

The only defense, so far, has been equally massive, and centralized, commercial services. This is a growing industry with its own round of disruptive innovators all to itself. This current business innovation is helping to move from the monolithic services protecting online infrastructures at high costs to a more scalable model, with services that smaller websites can benefit from. Still, back-end models are the same - providing shelter from DDoS attacks by having sufficient servers and bandwidth to absorb whatever their proprietary tools and filters cannot outright block.

Open source models to fight back have been conspicuous in their absence - until now.

The Deflect Project, created by the eQualit.ie technology collective based out of Montreal and Dublin, is responding to that gap. They focus on providing protection for activists and journalists around the world, who are subject to DDoS attacks from those who disagree with their views all the way to their own governments. Thanks to grant funding, Deflect is able to offer their services for free to independent media sites, NGOs and non-profits -- but the technology model under the hood is the real game-changer.

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.

On Pragmatism and the OLPC

has a hands-on photoshoot with the revolutionary XO-4 convertible tablet/laptop.  It has an infrared touchscreen, has refocused its interface to run on top of a standard Linux distribution instead of a customized and tweaked version, and... um... it looks rather familiar. I mean to say, it's almost indistinguishable from the XO-1.  

And that's a very good thing.  What has happened to the OLPC program is, in many ways, what I'd hoped they'd intentionally choose as a path forward-  thoughtful and efficient development focused on impact over glitz, using existing projects and tools where available, and not re-inventing things that weren't broken, but using incremental improvements.  Of course, that approach doesn't catch headlines as well, but it does work.

Tags

Scaling Social Entrepreneurship, New Economics, and more!

Here are the video links for my presentations from Campus Party Europe:

GeekEconomy with Don Tapscott (Author, Speaker and Advisor on Media, Technology and Innovation) and Simon Hampton (Director Public Policy EU, Google)

 

Scaling Social Innovations

My slides and notes here: joncamfield.com/blog/2012/08/scaling_social_innovation

 

Maddening Development Madlibs

There is a set of tropes, if you will, in startup social-enterprise projects. You can almost imagine them as a set of madlibs to be filled out and magically transformed into a development project. While I'm getting tired of hearing these tropes rolled out as innovative new business models, clearly others have not yet gotten so worn out by them. I'd like to fix that, with this one-size-fits all madlib-style business plan builder.

Let's play! fill this list out:

1 Office or commercial space/building: ___________
2 Consumer good: ___________
3 Vulnerable population: ___________
4 Affluent neighborhood
5 Clothing item
6 Country where rich people live:
7 Your favorite MDG: ___________
8 Type of professional: ___________
9 "third world" country: ___________
10 Number between 1 and 10: ___________

Done? Great! Too lazy? I've automated the process for you.

Let's review your business plan...

Exploring the Un-mappable: Bangkok Markets

Bangkok at night

Bangkok is truly infinite in all directions.

We had just turned a corner from the nuts-and-bolts district into a more open-air-marketish area. According to our maps, this was indeed the "Thieves Market" - formerly where people would fence stolen goods, now more of a market of randomness in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown.

We'd wandered through here earlier in the day by accident, and had had our fill of browsing powertools, pirated DVD porn, dollar-store items and kitchenware, so we peeked down a side alleyway that looked likely to go through to the next block over, in our general direction of onward wandering. On a whim, we took it (the joys of careless wandering that a good sense of direction and a local SIM card in a jailbroken iPhone afford you).

THIS was the real thieves market. We had stumbled into an invisible warren of narrow sois and passageways full of everything. From Playstations to cameras to knockoff tablets to boardgames and more, densely packed in a fractaline arrangement - a market in a market in a district full of markets in a city where everything (except a decent martini) seems to be for sale at a price -- the Bangkok Post classifieds, a surprisingly family-friendly section of the paper, still has large paid adverts for liposuction (600USD) and gender reassignment (1600USD). Package deals available.

This is Bangkok, where the downtown mega-mall shopping district got so frustrated with the street-side markets and 6-lane traffic jams slowing down foot-traffic between the office-building sized malls that they built above-ground sidewalks to link them together, as if the city itself were trying to scab over its street vendors and traffic congestion.

It's unmappable. Bangkok has a perfectly understandable system of neighborhoods, main streets and side streets that make navigation - once you grok the system - natural. WikiTravel explains this system the best:

Addresses in Bangkok use the Thai addressing system, which may be a little confusing to the uninitiated. Large roads such as Silom or Sukhumvit are thanon (ถนน), [...] while the side streets branching off from them are called soi (ซอย). Sois are numbered, with even numbers on one side and odd numbers on the other side. Thus, an address like "25 Sukhumvit Soi 3" means house/building number 25 on the 3rd soi of Sukhumvit Road. While the soi numbers on each side will always advance upward, the numbers often do not advance evenly between sides — for example, Soi 55 could be across from Soi 36. Many well-known sois have an additional name, which can be used instead of the number. Sukhumvit Soi 3 is also known as "Soi Nana Nuea", so the address above might thus also be expressed as "25 Soi Nana Nuea". The extension /x is used for new streets created between existing streets, as seen in Sukhumvit's soi pattern 7, 7/1, 7/2, 9, 11. Note that some short alleys are called trok (ตรอก) instead of soi.

To make things a little more complex, some large sois like Soi Ekkamai (Sukhumvit Soi 63) and Soi Ari (Phahonyothin Soi 7) have their own sois. In these cases, an address like "Ari Soi 3" means "the 3rd soi off Soi Ari", and you may even spot addresses like "68/2 Ekkamai Soi 4, Sukhumvit Road", meaning "2nd house beside house 68, in the 4th soi of Ekkamai, which is the 63rd soi of Sukhumvit". In many sois, the house numbers are not simply increasing, but may spread around.

Markets like the thieves market exist in a mix between sois, sub-sois, and a further maze of twisty little passages, all same-same, but different. This system has driven map-makers insane. Guidebooks like the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide have taken to a neighborhood, points-of-interest approach, which is great if you never stray from the path, but confusingly fails to include all the random side-streets, so "the first street on the left" may be very, very misleading. Google seems to be building a more comprehensive map overall, with anything that a two-wheeled vehicle could manage showing up -- but it's not complete, missing some of the better hidden or poorly mapped areas altogether. Open Street Maps is focusing so far on only the larger streets, missing huge swaths of the fractal nature of Bangkok.

The low cost of entry into these markets also mean that there is immense flux - a food stall may only be there a certain chunk of days out of the week, may move, or go out of business. It may have the best fried quail eggs in wanton wrappers in Bangkok, but good luck finding it reviewed at TripAdvisor.

But that misses the point, anyhow. In preparing for the trip, the guidebooks and websites both were failing at restaurant and shopping recommendations. That's because these are not really specific destinations in Thailand, but journeys that every traveler willing to venture out beyond their 5-star hotel or the backpacker ghetto must make on their own. Everyone will choose their own adventure - it will be perfect and unique and unrepeatable. And that, in this age of commoditized experiences and peer-reviewed restaurants, may actually be the most valuable part of a trip in Thailand.

Social Currency Unleashed: Bitcoin? (on FastCoExist)

Here's one of our big ideas from last week's overview. I take the helm here and dive in to alternative currencies, like the crazy new kid on the block -- bitcoin.

Is bitcoin a key to unlocking social currency?

The earlier attempts all were centralized startups, each proposing a competing faux-currency to ease online (providing simplicity and improving trust) transactions and slowly build a virtual currency of sorts. Their business plans generally involved taking margins from the transactions or cost differentials. The early Internet currency attempts ran into regulatory problems (most countries frown upon private companies setting up alternate currencies, it turns out), and had to evolve their offerings to avoid getting shut out.

Bitcoin provides something different. Instead of a currency that has evolved from being backed by precious metals into fiat currencies, Bitcoin is backed by cryptographic algorithms, and has no company--or even an identifiable person--behind it. This shared system provides an amazing openness for a currency: Every transaction is part of a public, collaborative log. However, the people behind those transactions are known only by their account numbers, in a world where you can create as many accounts as you like.

Read the full article at Fast Co.Exist