Development Theory

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?

Apples that are neither green nor easy to digest.

A few weeks back, I saw this show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" at the Woolly Mammoth. It's by Mike Daisey, and is a work of non-fiction, describing his experiences infiltrating electronics factories in China (read a bit about that at ABC News, and watch the embedded TechCrunch interview. It's playing in Seattle soon, and might come back to DC eventually. It is absolutely worth watching. It perfectly captures the Apple fanboy, and technology enthusiasts in general, and will have you howling with laughter at you see yourself in his portrayals of these characters. By the end, however, you may not want to touch your iPhone. Or buy one. Or consider the conditions under which it was made.

To add on to that, Apple just got named as the least green tech company by GreenPeace, focusing primarily on their coal-powered data centers. Facebook came in second, while Yahoo, Google and Amazon were praised for their use of clean energy.

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Support Property Rights

Ashoka's Changemakers is running a global competition with the Omidyar Network to source the most innovative approaches for providing property rights to those who lack them around the world.

If you're reading my blog, you probable understand the importance of being able to define and claim your ownership of property - it affects the stability of your living situation, your ability to qualify for (micro)finance, and your ability to even get a job by having a "real" address. Not to mention the obvious personal dignity values of having a place you can call your home, and the hands-down value in women's land ownership in stabilizing communities.

Vote Now! As part of our competition process we let the world decide who among our finalists have the best ideas, giving everyone the ability to crown the winners. So go and read the ideas of the semi-finalists, create an account and vote for your favorites at http://www.changemakers.com/property-rights/semifinalists#tab-section

Five thoughts on WikiLeaks

We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the internet safely. [ ... ] We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, [...]

Great ideals, sure, but what about WikiLeaks? Who in this day and age would vocally and publicly support tools that would "[circumvent] politically motivated censorship" when these crazies could be terrorists being censgored by a friendly government, or when their "free speech rights" could be potentially tied to copyrighted material?

Those were the words of Secretary Clinton, speaking earlier this year Hat-tip to BoingBoing. Kinda less relevant today, huh?

WikiLeaks has changed political discourse, and quite possibly the path of the Internet's evolution. I can't claim to have completely digested my own views on this, but here's a start, and some links to a lot of great thoughtwork on the situation.

1) Maybe this is the world we want. Long discussions about the value of a hegemonic global political system and its values on stability (at the cost of human rights, generally speaking) aside, the USA's political power is in flux right now, and possibly fading out. Do we want another superpower to emerge and dominate the world? USA, for all our foibles, has some strong ideals around democratic rule and human rights. We don't always practice those, but they're at least core to our political discourse. A truly multipolar world needs global-level democracy, and it's tools like wikileaks that begin to create that. Well, that, and a roving band of crypto-anarchists who get pissed off at this ham-handedness and decide to take the websites of mastercard and visa down. And Wikipedia. And torrent-sharing sites. Any tool that's good at promoting human rights in repressive regimes is also good at enabling dissidents, whistleblowers, pedophiles, and people swapping mp3 files. You don't get to pick and choose who uses these things, and trying to do so destroys their value immediately. These tools also lend themselves towards mob rule, so we need to choose our next steps carefully. As a side note, if you really disapprove of harshly, externally-enforced transparency of what you consider private details, then I really hope you're not reading this from a link on Facebook.

2) It's OK to be a Voltaire here. While not technically his own words, he certainly held and espoused the concept: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Wikileaks is being, well, over the top and careless in what it's releasing. The Collateral Murder video seems pretty clearly whistleblowing. The cable leaks are un-aimed. Clay Shirky summed this up solidly:

I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want. [...]

Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change. If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.

It's OK, if not strongly encouraged, to be not a big fan of WikiLeaks, but still supportive of their right to exist and disseminate "leaked" information. Would the US be upset if this was a leak of internal Chinese diplomatic ramblings, or North Korea, or Iran -- or would we be chalking another success up for "the little guy" in the global struggle for democracy and freedom of speech? We're all sovereign States here, at some level, there should be at least an illusion of equal rights among States.

3) Don't be Grand Moff Tarkin. Yeah, a Star Wars reference for good measure. The actual reference is to some parting advice from Leia on his tough stance around the use of force to put down rebels; "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." As an anonymous commenter on the BoingBoing story above said;

I think you misunderstood what she said. The attacks are the tool. Just look at the effect its had on wikileaks. Its gone from being hosted on a single server with rather unsafe DNS etc to being mirrored over 1000 times across the world!

Truely this government is driving the development of anti-censorship tools and increasing the power of free speech online.

This is the first of many problems of this sort, and here we are showing off all the tricks in our playbook. Over at Crooked Timber, Henry puts it more succinctly:

The US response to Wikileaks has been an interesting illustration of both the limits and extent of state power in an age of transnational information flows. The problem for the US has been quite straightforward. The Internet makes it more difficult for states (even powerful ones such as the US) to control information flows across their own borders and others. [The jurisdictional problems of the Internet] makes it much harder for the US and other actors to use the traditional tools of statecraft[...]

However, there is a set of tools that states can use to greater effect. The Internet and other networks provide some private actors with a great deal of effective transnational power. Banks that operate across multiple jurisdictions can shape financial flows between these jurisdictions.

The Internet has this amazing and annoying problem that's baked pretty deeply in to its architecture - it is designed to move information as efficiently as possible. This makes censorship attempts backfire every time. Somehow, no one has learned this.

4) Shooting the messenger is a fast way to being uninformed. Disabling, hobbling, and otherwise subjecting tools to political will is a very dangerous path. Amazon has a great business around providing "elastic" computing and hosting services to companies, and I'm going to bet that anyone using Amazon's services is re-examining their hosting choices right about now. Breaking the DNS system to take the main wikileaks site off the web -- I'm sure that sounded like a brilliant idea, and it's going to reignite a debate around the US's control of huge swaths of the DNS system, and probably make that power very difficult to enact both politically and technically. Again, the trust in what was considered a trusty tool has been eroded, and anyone working on hot-button issues is going to take extra care such that they have secondary systems to provide future resiliency against a similar attack. Beyond the points made in (3), we're hurting normal business that trusts these services to be reliable. Ethan Zuckerman has a good Q&A about this at the Columbia Journalism Review

5) Don't forget the real story. Did Julian Assange actually commit a crime in the US? He's not a citizen, he didn't do any of this in the US, and he's not the one who stole the classified documents. And he hasn't been charged with a crime (in the US, yet). Are we really pursuing someone for re-broadcasting already leaked, classified documents? That worked so well with the Pentagon Papers.

Hey, at least we live in interesting times.

#PulseCamp : Building a vital stats monitor for the world

My brain was pretty close to silly putty by the end of last week. It was been snapping back and forth, rubber-band-like, between microscopic, tightly focused, gnarled and tricky use cases up to their connection to the UN Global Pulse project - a global, systems-changing project.

Sketching out the architecture. This might take more post-its.

The Global Pulse, at scale, is... well, the more time I spend on it the less I'm sure I know what it specifically is. In effect, it is a massive data coordination system which helps visualization and tracking of anomalys and trends. The dream is to predict crises and improve prevention. This is easily thought of in detecting disease outbreaks through various data-connected behavior changes (increase in usage of oral rehydration salts as evidenced by stock-outs in health clinics reported in a nationa health information system could indicate a cholera problem). Its most valuable use case seems to be at the national level, but there would also (obviously) be a global level to track larger trends across countries and regions. And country-level offices could peer together with other Pulse installations, bring in global baseline data, and so on. It keeps going deeper and deeper in every direction possible.

Accepting the insanely complicated data and architecture questions, how do you even find the right data (whether it's well-formatted or a pile of paper), and connect it in and pull out solid anomaly tracking and generate useful, predictive guesses on trends. That's the key in the next stage of the Pulse - starting in one country. This PulseLab will be able to grok the local context and know the right data to plug in.


The trick for the data and architecture part has also been faced. Implementation will not be easy, by any means, but the goal of the architecture is to re-use and re-cycle as many existing tools as possible to slurp in data (both chunky databases and firehoses of live streaming data), standardize it, and then create a set of manipulation and visualization tools to help reveal trends and test hypotheses. This will likely take the form of a set of toyboxes of data sources, data transformation tools, apps (input/output to other useful systems like mappers, charting, Ushahidi, etc.), and a recipe box of how others have chained these together for specific data-digging goals. This recipe and the hypothesis testing tool (the "hunch" ) will likely compete to be the core social object of the system, with aid and government officials trading hunches and recipes (and recipes to support hunches, hunches based on recipe results...).

A potential Global Pulse Product-in-a-box for an end user

There is a lot up in the air, and a lot still to congeal as development of this tool and the architecture gets moving. The (amazingly well-facilitated) process which went from thinking through users, their requirements, common underlying system-level requirements and speccing those out was fantastic. It encouraged a lot of different and conflicting views around the product's end form to come to a loose consensus (and a better, more flexible product outline!).

If you're saying it can't be done, you're almost right. The first iterations will be limited and possibly fragile, relying on low-hanging data fruit instead of difficult to "harvest" data exhaust. Privacy issues abound, both on personal levels and at government security levels. Trust me when I say that the room was stock full of mind-bogglingly smart people who have dealt with the real worlds of development and reconstruction work, and these obstacles are being worked through by people who realize that lives and livelihoods are at stake in some of the privacy questions.

Here are summary notes from each day: One (Term of the Day: "Data Exhaust"), Two (TotD: "Data Esperanto"), and Three (TotD: "Contextualized Cartography"), as well as a solid overview of the project, and the call to action leading in to last week's workshop. A great writeup of the event is at by MIT's Nadav Aharony.

Development using SMS, not SMS4Dev

Cross-posted at TechnologySalon.org

Where the last SMS4D Technology Salon reminded us of the unique gift of mobile technologies to be based where there impact will be, The Cloudy SMS4D Salon really drove home mobile as a multifunctional tool whose true impact is tied more to the usage than the technology itself. While we gathered to discuss SMS4D, we really talked about heath reporting and outreach, education, and community-building through knowledge management and sharing. It just so happened that these health projects were using SMS codes to report longitudinal child health statistics.

Data gathering in health, and even knowing when to gather data, is a huge burden, often relying on community health workers doing the healthcare version of the T&V system of the agricultural extension world. Waiting around for a planned infrastructure is hopeless, but working with the more incremental nature of mobile can improve reporting rates and reduce errors -- "utter chaos works everywhere" being the best quote of this tech salon. Childcount builds on existing SMS reporting to enable community health workers to rapidly register children, note any symptoms or diseases they might have, improve patient tracking (and thereby reducing duplication), and schedule immunizations and outreach. The SMS "encoding" builds off of a simple and familiar paper form, which is handy for training (but less useful than a mango tree, as we'll see). The runner-up quote from this Salon dealt with discussion around the potential risk of intentionally fabricated data -- "humans are awful at falsifying data" -- digitizing and quick, auditable reporting exposes both errors and lies.

RapidResponse Overview from Matt Berg on Vimeo.

Winning the award for innovative ideas in mHealth was the HappyPill project -- instead of boing old SMS, HappyPills uses "flashing" - where you call a number and hang up immediately to "ping" someone. Usually, flashing is just a free way to ask someone to call you back, or you can sometimes work out extensive codes -- one missed call is just saying hi, two is call me back, three means an emergency, etc.. HappyPills takes this basic, essentially binary interaction and applies it to help improve adherence rates for prescription regimens. A medical center can send out flashes to their patients, and the patients are reminded to take their pills and would then flash back to signal that they took their medicine. It's naturally not foolproof, but hugely more cost effective (almost cost-free) in comparison with sending a community health worker out to the patient on a motorcycle to witness their pill-taking.

Tostan

It turns out that people are not just willing, but economically motivated and excited to use (and pay for) basic SMS-based services to improve their numeracy and literacy skills, improving their ability to communicate cheaply over their phones as well as better navigate market prices. In these low-technology communities, Tostan's Jokko Initiative is creating a curriculum to enable this via SMS, and they have also come up with an amazingly simple methodology to introduce people to menu systems using a mango tree metaphor which gracefully transitions from the concrete (planning a climbing route on a real tree to get to a specific mango) to the semi-concrete (the same, on a diagram of a tree), to the abstract (the tree diagram becomes the menu diagram, the mango a specific function). Anyone who thinks that is basic has never shown their grandparents a new shiny piece of technology, or had their entire worldview of user interface challenged by someone physically pointing a mouse at a screen).

Patatat is an early-stage solution which puts SMS into the role of a community town hall/newsletter/email list. It removes not only the normal geographic barriers that a listserv gets around, but also infrastructure barriers, so (for example) farmers across a region or the world can share knowledge around their crops without relying on the grid and hardwired phones/Internet to do so. This also centralizes costs to one "host" and minimizes it to the community, so a farmer could send one SMS (free to receive, costs to send), and the host would re-broadcast it to the entire "community." With Twitter already showing that it can (technically) report earthquakes faster than the earthquake itself spreads, this rebroadcasting tool also has clear applications in emergency announcements, citizen journalism and a myriad of other fields.

So, was this technology salon about technology, or was it about development projects? Sure, all of the projects discussed at the salon happened to use server and cloud-based SMS technologies. They also probably use paper, transportation, and people. That the technology is now moving from the focus of a project to being a (cool, exciting, powerful, still new-and-shiny) tool in the toolbox is truly heartwarming. It means it is maturing into a cross-sector role and not into another silo (sorry, a "cylinder of excellence" in the parlance of our times).

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The Secret Sauce in Technology For Development isn't the Tech.

Ushahidi's Patrick Meier has a fantastic graph of deployment time for Ushahidi's amazing crisis-mapping solution (which has been deployed for such diverse projects as Haiti post-earthquake, the Gulf Coast post-BP, and DC's 2009/10 "Snowmageddon"):

The simplicity of Ushahidi setup sometimes leads to some crestfallen administrators.

Just because you bought a domain name and ran the Ushahidi installer doesn’t mean that anyone is going to use they system — and even if you somehow get a lot of reports, you might not be relevant to the existing systems [...] Ushahidi is only 10% of solution.”

I'd posit that this 10%/90% division applies to any and all "tech" solutions to real-world problems.

The technology is increasingly (perhaps it always has been) the easy part. It's a shiny, tangible product with clear "milestones" of in development, in testing, deployed, working. Lots of happy checkboxes for any M&E report, and photo-ops to generate great press and build excitement and community around a technology.

Going Nuts over the Value of Local Production

For some background, I highly recommend Alanna Shaikh's post here: http://aidwatchers.com/2010/04/the-plumpy%E2%80%99nut-dustup/ and follow-up here: http://aidwatchers.com/2010/05/the-plumpy%E2%80%99nut-dust-up-nutriset%… . In short, a French company is defending their patent on a super-nutritious "therapeutic" food called Plumpy'nut against a lawsuit by some US NGOs (who could have licensed it, but are instead trying to break the patent)

My guy reaction was anti-intellectual property, as I strongly believe that our current IP schemes tend to do more damage than good. That being said, I think Nutriset is seemingly doing the right thing here - forcing support for local production. Let us presume nothing but sparkly, unicorn-bedazzled thoughts about Nutriset for a moment:

Goal 1: Provide a therapeutic food product
Goal 2: Ensure quality standards (duh)
Goal 3: Make it widely available and politically tenable to "recipient" governments
Goal 4: Don't make things worse locally by undercutting the economy

You could open the patent, post the ingredients and production methods and encourage everyone to go after it. This would support goals 1,3 and 4, with a risk of opportunists really wrecking #2, anyone could claim that they were using the authentic plumpynut recipe even while their product is unhealthy at best or outright deadly at worst.

SXSW 2010

I made it to South By Southwest this year, where I immersed myself in innovative ideas for open-sourced businesses, technology design for good, social media for change, and the general awesome insanity of SXSW.

The absolute best part of this conference is the new world of twitter-powered discussions. At a talk yesterday, the entire Q&A session was run over twitter. The presenters paused a few questions in and asked for a show of hands of anyone who was not using twitter. In a large crowded ballroom, no one raised their hands. Every session ends up having a running, silent conversation and collaborative note-taking.

You can follow my notes in twitter at http://twitter.com/joncamfield, and see what events I went to (or was trying to decide between) at http://my.sxsw.com/user/schedule/joncamfield

On Sunday afternoon, I worked with CrisisCamp DC's Heather Blanchard and @HastingsCJ to organize a meetup for ICT4D practitioners at the Gingerman, which turned our great. Lots of faces were put to twitter-names, connections were made and beer was consumed.

Few, if any, tweet-ups will compare, however, to Monday night's Good Capitalist party that Ashoka's Changemakers co-hosted with a variety of other social entrepreneurship groups. Without a dime of marketing money spent, it had 2000 RSVPs and over 600 people who made it by to network, learn about social entrepreneurship, and enjoy the wonderful outdoor Austin weather..