Salzburg: Steve Bratt and the Web Foundation

I’m in Salzburg today at a Salzburg Global Seminar titled “Strengthening Independent Media“. The event’s being co-organized by the Knight Foundation, the Global Forum for Media Development and SGS, which is an organization I hadn’t encountered before. Since 1947, they’ve been running global seminars in a castle – the castle featured in the Sound of Music (sort of) – in Salzburg.

I gave a version of my TED talk on imaginary cosmopolitanism, somewhat reframed for an audience focused on the development of independent media. I ended up urging the audience to invest in mapping how old and new media cover international news, to map interest in international news and to ask ourselves what the civic function of international media is. I had the good fortune of having Richard Sambrook, formerly the director of BBC’s World Service, and Mirjana Milosevic of the World Association of Newspapers as interlocutors. Our conversation ended up focusing on “the missing middle”, the large number of people who aren’t interested in international news and the possibility that international news might be emerging as a luxury product for the small number of people who feel a need for this information. It’s a good question, one that I think demands solutions beyond journalism, in education and civic engagement as well as in the news reporting sphere.

The second session of the day featured Steve Bratt, the CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation, who titled his talk, “From Whence Killer Apps?” He’s curious what technologies are so desirable that they’ll speed the adoption of the internet and related technologies in the 75% of the world not currently using these tools. The WWW Foundation, founded by Tim Berners-Lee with support from the Knight Foundation, is focused on stimulating development of the internet in emerging economies, which requires building tools that are killer apps for these communities.

Bratt nominates Twitter (citing the controversial example of the Iranian twitter revolution as an example), Ushahidi, M-Pesa and Open Street Maps as possible emerging killer apps. He references competitions taking place to build developing nation-specific applications, which have led to sites like search engine EssentialAfrica.com and Maduqa, a mobile-phone based marketplace. Exciting as these applications have been, their impact on low and middle income countries has been pretty small.

He references a recent trip to Burkina Faso where the WWW Foundation tried to learn about the local information environment, discovering the importance of the mobile phone and building alliances with local agricultural agents, who they see as critical information brokers for these communities. These emerging relationships are the first step towards a “web alliance for regreening Africa”.

Mobile phones, Bratt tells us, are a much bigger revolution than the web. If we look at graphs of ICT penetration worldwide, we’ll see that there’s a massive gap between mobile phone penetration and internet penetration, both of which are growing rapidly. It’s worth noting that mobile broadband is now outpacing fixed broadband. He suggests we take seriously interactive voice response systems, which work on all phones without data access or broadband subscriptions and help bridge barriers of language. (And there’s a brief shoutout to the semantic web, but Bratt also admits that the issues are hard to communicate to a non-technical audience.)

Bratt suggests that we need to take seriously barriers to the adoption of the internet. This means not just considering electricity and connectivity – we need to think about local content, technology gaps and research gaps. Without local content, there are few good reasons for users to come online. Tecnology barriers include obstacles that prevent people with disabilities, with challenges due to aging, or problems accessing the web due to language gaps. Research gaps refers to the ways in which we don’t understand what the web is or how it works, a field that’s emerging as “web science”.

In these conversations, the developing world is rarely represented. Meetings of the w3c consortium generally feature people from wealthy nations working through these issues. WWW Foundation is trying to focus on affordable connectivity, assistive technology and the integration of the web with other technologies, like community radio. Projects fit under three general headers:
– Web and society – finding ways to sponsor development of critical local content
– Web standards – advancing one web that works for all
– Web science – understanding the web and exploring new ideas
This work focuses on the areas of agriculture, open government and entrepreneurship and will begin with a focus on Africa.

Bratt suggests that “web science” will emerge as a field like cognitive science, inviting scholars from multiple disciplines to explore questions about the web’s evolution, its fragilities, causes and effects of change online, ways in which the web can lead towards transparency and accountability, and difficult questions like privacy and ownership of information.

One major project the Foundation will take on is a Global Web Index… “because what the world needs is another index,” he quips. This will track the number of people creating and consuming content, numbers of websites and applications, the volume of data, the use of open and safe web technologies, questions of social and economic values of the web, and the messy question of “web freedom”.

Around content creation, the Foundation will be building global guidelines, trainings and tools to enable content creation that focuses on people with low reading skills, people who communication in languages that are not well supported, people with little computer experience and with disabilities. The goal is to stimulate the growht of this content by the “creation of life-critical web projects that become shining examples worth copying
training and tools.”

Another focus is on opening government data in low and middle income countries. This means taking inspiration from projects like data.gov and data.gov.uk and figuring out how open data could come to pass in countries like Ghana and Chile, opening the raw material of data to the general public. And the Web Foundation also wants to focus on inspiring entrepreneurship, working with Ushahidi in Kenya with support from the World Bank’s Infodev program to sponsor startups and collaboration between innovators around the iHub in Nairobi.

Bratt closes with a great observation from Tim Berners-Lee: The web is not technology, the web is humanity connected by technology.

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