ICT4D – … My heart’s in Accra http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003 Mon, 27 Nov 2017 16:41:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.5 What comes after election monitoring? Citizen monitoring of infrastructure. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2013/04/26/what-comes-after-election-monitoring-citizen-monitoring-of-infrastructure/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2013/04/26/what-comes-after-election-monitoring-citizen-monitoring-of-infrastructure/#comments Fri, 26 Apr 2013 19:19:21 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=4538 Continue reading ]]> I spent last week in Senegal at a board meeting for Open Society Foundation, meeting organizations the foundation supports around the continent. Two projects in particular stuck in my mind. One is Y’en a Marre (“Fed Up”), a Senegalese activist organization led by hiphop artists and journalists, who worked to register voters and oust long-time president Abdoulaye Wade. (I wrote about them last week here, and on Wikipedia.)


Documentary on OSIWA’s Situation Room project in Senegal, featuring Y’en a Marre

The other is a project run by Open Society Foundation West Africa – OSIWA – with support from partners in Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria and the UK. It’s an election “situation room”, a civil society election monitoring effort that focuses less on declaring elections “free and fair” than on reacting quickly to possible violence, mobilizing community leaders as peacemakers. OSIWA’s method has been used in Nigeria and Liberia, as well as in the Senegalese election where Y’en A Marre was such a powerful actor, as portrayed in the documentary above.

Elections are a moment where civil society often shines. Holding elections has become a major priority for governments, bilateral aid organizations and civil society organizations, and there’s been a good deal of creativity around monitoring elections using parallel vote tabulation and social media monitoring.

But elections don’t always equal development, or even a democratic process. Economist Paul Collier notes that elections in very poor nations often spark violence, and sees evidence that 41% of elections are marred by significant fraud. Elections work, Collier tells us, when governments are evaluated on their performance, not on their propensity for patronage. Citizens need to watch whether governments keep their promises, and oust those that don’t measure up. (See MorsiMeter, developed to monitor the first 100 days of Morsi’s presidency of Egypt.)

One question colleagues and I had for the remarkable activists at Y’en A Marre was what they were planning to do now that Wade had been ousted and Macky Sall elected. The bloggers and journalists I spoke to had a number of answers that centered on ensuring the Sall government benefits the rural poor and helping Senegal reduce dependence on international food suppliers. While it’s great to see activists thinking about macroeconomics, it was also clear that the intense focus of the movement – ousting a president who’d overstayed his constitutional mandate – had significantly dissipated, and that new foci hadn’t generated the same energy amongst the hundreds of community leaders who make up the Y’en A Marre movement.

I was thinking about this question – what do election-focused movement do once an election is over? – when I stumbled on this paper from colleagues and friends at Columbia’s Earth Institute. The Columbia team document a system they’ve built for government-hired enumerators in Nigeria, who are using mobile phones equipped with cameras and GPS to conduct a census of the nation’s essential infrastructure: boreholes (wells), schools, health clinics, etc. The teams rapidly mapped over a quarter million points of data, one of the larger extant sets of information on the Nigerian government’s efforts at service delivery.

As the Columbia authors explain, mapping using mobile phones is less a clever gimmick than a technical necessity – make a map with paper surveys and you’re transferring long GPS coordinates by hand. A simple application that stores a GPS reading, a picture and a human report allows for a large set of “human sensors” to rapidly build a data set.

People involved with the Columbia project have worked on version of this idea that are more expressive – Matt Berg (who took over some of the Geekcorps work I’d helped start in Mali) worked with a nonprofit in Kolkata to help children map trash and public health issues in their neighborhoods, overlaying data on maps they’d drawn by hand of their home communities. And other projects have focused on helping communities map their infrastructures and needs through a combination of digital and analog means, notably Map Kibera, which has worked to create accurate maps of one of Nairobi’s largest slums.

It strikes me that a major opportunity for groups like Y’en A Marre to remain active between elections is to take on a role as citizen monitors. If the key to a successful democracy is a government that delivers services and is elected based on its performance, then documenting whether campaign promises get met is a critical step towards responsive government. In most African nations where I’ve worked, campaign promises center primarily on building infrastructures: “Name me to Parliament and I will ensure we’ll have 20 new primary schools and clean water in every village.” Citizens need to be able to verify those claims. Even in developed nations, those are hard claims to verify – ProPublica memorably turned to crowdsourcing to determine whether US federal stimulus money was being put to work, or sitting in local government coffers. (Most of it was put to work quite quickly.) If it’s hard to understand the local impacts of federal spending in the US, it’s really hard in nations that have a weak press, a culture of government secrecy or little ability to collect on the ground data.

I’d like to find ways to help groups like Y’en A Marre, Enough is Enoughhttp://eienigeria.org/ and others collect and share data, creating open data sets useful to activists, journalists, governments and the development community. The same data could help governments document their successes, journalists monitor government spending and activists demand equitable resource distribution in their communities. I can imagine projects that incorporate low-cost CO sensors that talk to phone to monitor vehicular and cooking stove pollution; projects that invite people to document their favorite and least favorite parts of their cities and villages; projects that enlist broad cooperation by compensating participants for their time with mobile phone minutes, as Esoko does to collect agricultural market information. Other monitoring projects could focus on rapid response. My friend Tunde Ladner of Wangonet began a project in Lagos that encouraged people to report dangerous construction underway, a critical dataset that would demand quick response to protect against building collapse.

I’m thinking about putting some of Center for Civic Media’s resources towards exploring this idea, probably first in Nairobi with friends at Ushahidi and the iHub. If you have ideas about partners, about questions to explore, pushback on the concept of citizen monitoring, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Airplanes, Faith and Latent Networks http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2010/08/13/airplanes-faith-and-latent-networks/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2010/08/13/airplanes-faith-and-latent-networks/#comments Fri, 13 Aug 2010 23:25:45 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=3740 Continue reading ]]> Earlier this week, I met with Evan Paul, a smart urban planner just out of a master’s program at MIT. He’s working with colleagues on a new idea – “Global Planning Partners”, a nonprofit intended to help urban planners in the North work with planners in developing world megacities. And while I love and respect projects like Dx1W that point to the challenges of asking students in the developed world to “solve” developing world problems, I think projects that connect professionals in the developed and developing world to encourage cooperation and skill transfer are significantly more likely to lead to good outcomes.

(I had a chance to talk with Martin Williams, a young economist who’s spending two years in Ghana, in Accra a couple of weeks back. He’s serving as staff economist within the Ghana Ministry of Trade and Industry… where he tells me he’s the only guy who’s building economic models to understand trade policy. He’s there due to the grace of the Overseas Development Institute, a UK thinktank that provides economics support to developing economies. No doubt that Martin will be able to have a great impact while in Ghana, but it’s a little crazy that this is a function being provided by a recent Masters graduate in the country for two years. The reason isn’t that there aren’t trained economists in Ghana – there are, but the Ministry pays so poorly that they’re working elsewhere. Makes me wonder whether there’s more of a shortage of urban planners in countries like Ghana, or whether the economic incentives drive trained planners to work outside the country…)

So Paul and I were talking about the successes and failures of Geekcorps, the NGO I helped found in 1999 and walked away from in 2004. I tried to explain why Geekcorps had become so expensive and so hard to sustain – that putting people on airplanes, whether it’s to dig a well or advise a government, is incredibly expensive. Coming out of the Geekcorps experience, where raising money to support our volunteers led me to a partnership with USAID which ultimately ended up crushing the project, I found myself urging Paul to consider a problem that I’ve yet to adequately solve: how do you build relationships, share ideas and transfer skills without getting on airplanes?

Needless to say, I’m not the only person who’s tried to solve this problem. The UN’s volunteering program, UNV, has been working for years to establish a virtual volunteering arm that lets individuals take on tasks like research, translation, or graphic design to help development organizations around the world. Nabuur, an online volunteering community, tries to ground these sorts of virtual experiences in learning about the villages where these opportunities are based, and building connections between individual users of the system.

But much as reading lecture notes via MIT Open Courseware isn’t the same thing as dragging yourself across the MIT campus on a wet, grey February morning for a 6.042 lecture, assisting a Ghanaian primary school to write an application for grant funding isn’t the same thing as drinking palm wine with village elders. Not only does virtual volunteering provide a different set of rewards than participating in person, it means that it’s much harder for you to understand local needs and constraints, and easier to make bad design assumptions.

It’s possible to understand Global Voices as a “post-airplane” project, but that’s a misreading of how the network actually came about. After a few months of working on the project, Rebecca and I took advantage of a Berkman conference to bring dozens of international bloggers together at Harvard to build the relationships that led to forming Global Voices as a functional online community. We’ve spent absurd sums every two years to bring our community together in India, Hungary, Chile because we believe – correctly or otherwise – that face to face interaction is part of the magic that allows this project to run primarily on love, not on money. And the accumulated goodwill that comes from getting lost together in Zakir Nagar lasts between these biennial meetings and gives us a basis for collaboration in the interim.

I’ve started thinking of the GV model as “VPV” – virtual, person to person, then virtual again. People discover the community online, and connect based on their sense of shared identity and values with the people already participating. They come together, face to face, either at the biennial meetings we run or at the other people’s conferences (which we’re religious about invading and using to converge our network.) That, in turn, builds the trust and relationships we need to survive working together for the next months or years until we see each other face to face.

This form of social organization isn’t unique to the online age, of course – it’s the pattern scholarly communities have followed for years, with relationships developed through journals and individual communication, cemented by time visiting each others institutions and attending conferences. But the internet offers tools that can broaden and deepen these virtual ties. Reading a friend’s blog or following their twitter feed isn’t the same as beign able to see them each day, but it can be a more immersive experience than exchanging the occasional letter or article. I know far more about the daily habits of some of the GV colleagues than I do about friends I’ve known in person for twenty years.

I think part of the key to making a VPV community work is starting with a group that has a common identity, belief or practice. The common identity that links GV is a pretty loose one – we’re all bloggers (though participating in GV has the tendency to make one blog less, not more). That, and a mutual interest in making sure the online media world extends beyond North America and Europe, is evidently sufficient to create enough of a collective identity that many folks are able to participate within the project before they’ve met another GV person face to face. (I don’t know that anyone has yet met our beloved Veronika Khokhlova in person, despite leading our efforts in the former Soviet Union since early 2006.)

Virtual communities work well when there’s an assumption of good faith from other participants. Online communication is hard; we’ve got far less information about someone’s intention and emotion than we have in other forms of communication: no body language, no tone of voice. If we’re looking for evidence that the other participant is biased, inconsiderate, stupid, it’s often possible to find that evidence in the text he or she has posted. In real life, we tend to cut people slack and assume that a comment wasn’t made to offend. It’s harder to let things slide online – not only do we lack the non-verbal cues, but often it’s a mistake to assume good faith, to assume that your online conversant is interested in dialog rather than in a fight. (The comments on many newspaper websites can show you what conversation in absence of good faith looks like. Or you can just look at conversations within the US Congress at this point…)

If you can assume good faith long enough to establish real common ground with someone – preferably face to face – you can often weather the missteps that characterize these narrow channels of communication. Which isn’t to say that VPV communities always work out well – there are debates, like that over our Israel Flotilla coverage, that show that trust can be a scarce commodity even within a community of people who’ve had a lot of face to face interaction. I suggest that assumption of good faith as a precursor to building trust is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition to building lasting online relationships.

Which brings me back to this question of cross-cultural interaction without airplanes. If trust comes from assumption of good faith, and that assumption comes, in part, from a common practice or identity… maybe it’s time for activists to take a closer look at churches.

I spent Wednesday afternoon with Dylan Breuer, a theologian and lay leader in the Episcopal Church (the church that I’m a not-especially-active part of of.) She and I have been in touch over the years about political and social issues in East Africa, where she’s traveled extensively, working with local congregations. (Much of our conversation has had to do with what the Episcopal Church could do to support gay and lesbian rights in Uganda.)

While it’s an consequence of outdated, colonialist models of proselytizing that the Episcopal/Anglican church has presences in every corner of the globe, I’m wondering if it makes sense to think about church networks (in which I include mosques, synagogues, temples and any transnational religious institutions) as “latent networks” where the possibility of presumption of trust is higher because of a common identity and practice.

Which is to say, if we’re interested in building online relationships that cross borders of nation, language and religion, maybe the first step is to look closely at the networks that are already crossing these borders. And that an organization like the Episcopal church, which Sarah helpfully points out, does have (ritualized) weekly meetings to talk about social justice, might provide some of the infrastructure for online volunteering or other forms of VPV social change.

I realize that this is an open invitation for readers to respond with an emphatic “duh!” and perhaps the observation that American academics would benefit from spending more time in the religious institutions of their choice. Fair enough.

There’s a blind spot many development professionals have as well about faith based organizations. Eight years ago, I was in Dakar, Senegal with a colleague from USAID, working on a White House initiative. We’d had a very long week of meetings, and were chilling out on a Friday night before he returned to DC and me to Boston, eating at a beach restaurant. We were the only non-locals in the place, until a group of 40 Americans (the southern accents made it pretty obvious) walked in, led by a man whose deep tan and locally made shirt suggested that he wasn’t an interloper.

We held off our curiosity for about three minutes, then broke down and introduced ourselves. The group was a set of nurses organized by a Baptist church in South Carolina, and they’d been working in the south of the country, led by a missionary who’d been living in Senegal for a decade. Hearing that we were working with USAID, he explained the literacy program he and friends in his village had developed over the past years. It involved printing stories in French and Wolof on large sheets of paper, which were sold to market women to wrap loaves of bread. Kids were encouraged to collect the sheets, which could be redeemed, a hundred at a time, for small prizes. And a local radio broadcast led them through the stories – some of which, yes, were bible stories – teaching the children to read aloud. As we left the restaurant, my colleague observed that the literacy plan we’d heard about beat the crap out of most he’d been pitched at USAID, and wondered whether there was a way to match new USAID program officers with people with deep community knowledge… including missionaries who’d lived and worked in communities for years.

I don’t mean to trivialize the ways in which evangelism can be deeply disrespectful of local cultures. The people our friend in Senegal was preaching to were almost certainly Muslim, as most Senegalese are, and I’m uncomfortable with the fact that his literacy program is, on som level, designed to draw people from one faith to another. At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize that much of the contact between people from different nations comes through religious institutions. As someone who cares about building understand, relationships and communication between people, it seems like a blind spot – my blind spot – that I’m not paying much attention to these networks.

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Highlights of our workshop on ICT and Elections in Nigeria http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2010/07/20/highlights-of-our-workshop-on-ict-and-elections-in-nigeria/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2010/07/20/highlights-of-our-workshop-on-ict-and-elections-in-nigeria/#comments Tue, 20 Jul 2010 09:09:55 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=3716 Continue reading ]]> The past two days, I’ve been participating in the first day of a two-day event on information technology and government transparency in Nigeria. It’s a conversation that’s both timely, and also a bit late – decisions recently made in Nigeria mean that the upcoming presidential election will take place in January 2011. My colleages at the Berkman Center are working with colleagues at Georgia Tech, election monitoring organization NDI, Nigerian IT training academy Digital Bridges Institute and sponsors from the MacArthur Foundation have organized two days of events – the first day is a large public session hosted at the Yar’Adua Center (not named after the late president, but his uncle) in Abuja, where we’re hosting a set of panels for an audience of about 300. Tomorrow, we’ve got scheduled a day-long “unconference”, hoping to build alliances and tools that will help make the 2011 elections more free, fair and transparent.

Part of the excitement about the event for me is that it’s been a chance to meet some Nigerian superheroes who’ve come to be part of the event. I was able to invite Dele Olojede – founder of Timbuktu Media, the publisher of the 234Next news service – to join us. He had to back out of the panel I’m moderating, but he and I were able to sit down and talk about his innovative new project, which aims to use news delivered on paper, online and via mobile phone to challenge existing power structures in Nigeria. Meeting folks like Dele, as well as young innovators like Gbenga Sesan (behind the Light Up Nigeria and Enough is Enough campaigns) makes trips like this worthwhile.

Our little gathering has managed to attract some big names, including Donald Duke, former two-term governor of Cross Rivers State (who, everyone in the room assumes, is now a candidate for president.) Duke speaks briefly to the audience and notes that Nigeria is looking abroad, and especially to Ghana, to see how elections can run smoothly. (We crypto-Ghanaians in the crowd appreciated the shoutout.) While it would be great to learn from Ghana, “Nigeria is unique. We could learn how to do it elsewhere, but there’s a gene in us that means we…” He stops and makes a vague, uncertain hand gesture that sends the crowd into laughter. “I can’t find a word for it, I need to use my hands. And I hope we can use technology to undo some of this.”

As large conferences often are, our presentation are a mix of formal thanks to the various powerful people in the room, short idea pieces from the presenters, and strong provocations from the audience. Rather than trying to get full summaries, I’ll try to pull out the tidbits that stuck with me.

Ian Schuler of NDI, our cosponsor for the event, suggests that one of the most powerful uses for ICT in elections are for forensic analyses – registration analysis (elimination of duplicate voters), quick counts, and parallel tabulations. He also offers a shoutout to Ghana, where these techniques were used to great effect. These, he tells us, are examples of ways we can let the problems lead, rather than the technology – this interventions don’t require much tech, usually little more than a mobile phone and a system of reporting codes, but can be powerful because they’re so tightly matched to the problems we face.

Kwami Ahiabenu of PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian nonprofit that’s focused on making journalists more technically skilled and competent, has been leading vote reporting (as distinguished from vote reporting) projects throughout the continent – Malawi, Botswana, Guinea, Ghana and other countries as well. In Guinea – which Ahiabenu notes is lucky to have a military leader who’s committed to stepping down – his team was able to obtain a shortcode – 8008 – which allowed anyone to report problems at particular polling places. Rather than dismissing the power of new technological platforms for political engagement, he asks “Why do all these old men have Facebook accounts?” Here he’s referring to the new trend of African leaders build their Facebook presence. “It’s the only way to reach out to the youth population.”

Emma Ezeazu of the Alliance for Credible Elections gains applause from the room with quips like, “the government has become criminalized”, and that “government has become an albatross in this country – a mental block to change.” He suggests we assess technologies for transparency seriously because it’s a mistake to outsource this process to professional election workers: “We have be turned into watchers of election workers.” Asked later about the possibility for technology for monitoring polling places, Ezeazu tells us that the thugs who intimidate and break up elections “are very cowardly people – when they see everyone has a mobile phone, they back off.” In other words, the ability to report on people being denied the ability to exercise their franchise can be enough to scare the thugs off… sometimes.

A tough question for the panelists from a woman from River State: Who do you report to if you lose your franchise? If you report to the electoral commission, are there actual consequences of reporting? It’s one thing to urge people to participate, but if that articipation doesn’t lead to change. Why urge people to participate?

Professor Jibrin Ibrahim offered one of the four co-keynotes of the day, which started with the brilliant line: “We’ve organized very good elections, we’ve organized very bad elections. We are especially skilled in organizing very bad elections.” Looking for the common thread between the good elections, Ibrahim suggests that the good elections are ones where the incumbent was not a player… and the bad ones tend to be ones incumbents have planned.

Ibrahim tells us that Nigerians have needed to coin a new term to explain how elections are stolen: digital rigging. He points to an election in Ondo in 1983 where the results reported had literally nothing to do with the election at all. In more recent times, ICT has acted as a ruse, showing that preparations were excellent, but hiding the reality of a stolen election. Sometimes we can see a stolen election coming because the promises are so absurd. For the 2007 election, the elections authority proposed a system that involved ana electronic voter register, biomechanical cards, and voting machines that transmitted results to the elections comission headquarters. While the officials promised the most technically sophisticated election in the world, what resulted was wholesale theft of votes.

Carlo Binda of NDI tries to disabuse us of the notion that elections monitors just care about elections – “elections are not an event, they’re a process”. He points out that Yemen recently held an election that went off without a hitch… but “that’s not where the shenanigans took place”, and the election led to no change at all. He reminds us that the Obama campaign did something very basic – simple, straightforward organizing – more than they did deployment of new ICT technologies. “ICT alone is not the silver bullet.”

While I didn’t get to grill him on my panel, Dele Olojele of 234NEXT gave a short keynote to talk about his new model, which began as a Twitter feed, then became a website, and only later became a printed newspaper. While this model of disseminating news – fast, online, investigative – is having success in breaking stories, it hasn’t caused the change Olojele hoped for: “A funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. Sometimes providing information is not enough.” He tells us about breaking a story that conclusively demonstrated graft by the oil minister. “The story sank like a stone – no resignation, no reprimand.” Olojele tells us he’s still trying to crack the code, because the goal is “setting free 150 million people.” Here ICT is not a magical bullet, but “when you are fifty years old, I am no longer looking for magical bullets” – instead ICT is provides a new space wehre there is hope that things can change.

Asma’u Joda from the Center for Women and Adolescent Empowerment reminds us that women are the majority of voters, and often don’t know why they vote. “Usually, we vote because our men tell us, or because someone promises something we can feed our families. And if we don’t know why we’re voting, we make the worst choices.” She wonders whether ICT is the most appropriate tool for the women she works with – they can’t afford phones, credits and when they can, half the time, the network doesn’t work. More important may be leaders like a nationally respected Imam, who could ensure women the vote by making a public statement okaying their participation in elections. And in her community, where one family’s children are everyone’s children, it’s possible that wired, connected children may alter the opinions of their parents and other parents in the community.

The founder of the Enough is Enough Coalition, Chude Jideonwo, tells us a funny story – he came up behind one of the young Nigerians tweeting at this gathering and said in a scolding tone, “Young man, you should be paying attention.” His friend jumped and immediately put down his Blackberry, embarrased to be called out. Chude tells us that the guy in question has thousands of Twitter followers and is reaching a much wider audience that we are, speaking in this hall. Yes, it’s possible to exaggerate the influence of our tools – he mentions he has no good answer to the question, “How are you going to upload the picture when the area boy is holding a gun to your head?” ICT is simply another tool. But we’ve seen evidence that it can mobilize people who often aren’t politically active, bringing a large group of youth to rally both in Abuja and Lagos, brough to the streets via digital media. “We tend to think if you go onto Facebook, you’re going to meet a young person in Europe. That’s not usually the case – you are going to meet the youth of Abuja.

Bolaji Aluko of Howard University gives an excellent analogy, talking about the infrastructures that made the World Cup possible – the early stages, the referees, the rules, the fouls and the penalty kicks. While there were problems – a number of terrible calls, an unpredictable ball, no goal line review – most everyone agrees that Spain won and deserves to be “president of football” for the next four years. The problem with elections in Nigeria, Aluko tells us, is not that Nigerians are poor losers – it’s that the rules don’t work. We don’t have real separation between the legislature, executive and judiciary, and corruption in one wing infect and reinforce the other. The press becomes a target of indimidation and influence. When this fails, we see military coups. Glad one of those didn’t break out against FIFA.


The event we’re helping organize here is two days – the first is the public discussion, the second, a daylong unconference and brainstorm for people interested in building tools and organizations to make the 2011 elections more transparent and fair. In that spirit, we saw a series of short “spotlight sessions”, focusing on technology projects already underway which might assist in better 2011 elections.

Thomas Smyth, a PhD student under Mike Best at Georgia Tech, shows off Yarn for Yarn, an electronic platform for citizen dialog. The platform tries to recognize that “the internet isn’t quite what we want it to be in Nigeria” and uses SMS and battery powered kiosks to participate in an online, question-driven discussion. If you’re in Nigeria, you can participate by choosing a six-letter username and sending a text that says “register (that username)” to 0816 746 4700. When you get a confirmation code, send “join #enigeria” to the same number to subscribe to a moderated discussion coming out of our conference today.

The founder of Transform Naija (whose name I missed, unfortunately) tells us that, about a year ago, he knew basically nothing about ICT. He came to an event we held in Abuja last year, and he’s now spearheading an initiative focused on mobilizing citizens. He tells us, “if I can do this, everyone can.” His project adds a layer to citizen election monitoring, using the Ushahidi mapping platform, but adds a key component – allowing participation via voice telephony. For now, it supports five platforms – the three “regular suspects” (Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba) plus English and Pidgin. The goal is to collect reports on free and fair elections, corruption and human rights abuses and to see whether authorities respond correctly to these reports. He closes by telling us that he wants to see transparent elections taking place starting at the student elections level. We need people to get used to the idea that elected officials – student or otherwise – are accountable and work through fair elections.

Gideon Tetteh of CDD Ghana tells us of the experiences he had conducting a parallel vote tally during Ghana’s recent presidential elections. As most readers of this blog should know, the vote was extremely close, and the elections commission ended up consulting with the parallel tabulation to ensure their results were correct. (There’s skepticism that a model that worked in Ghana will work in Nigeria.) Tetteh wonders whether we can start using mobile phones to hold politicans accountable for their promises between election cycles. When we transfer money using mobile phones (a common practice in Ghana now using MTN’s mobile money), we call the recipient to confirm she received the funds. Why don’t we call our relatives in the villages to see whether the promises politicians made them during election cycles get carried out?

Fasoro Oladipo (@dfasoro) of the nigeriaelections.org portal shows us a funny webpage – it’s the electoral comission’s information page on the late president Yar’Adua. It has his name, a broken image an no other information, not even his gender. He asks “What did you know about the 2007 elections? How did you know it?” and tells us that he’s building a system to combine what the electoral commission (INEC) knows, what CSOs and NGOs know, and what you know, because “not knowing leads to not acting.”

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Harvard Forum: Focus and Faith http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2009/09/24/harvard-forum-focus-and-faith/ Thu, 24 Sep 2009 18:29:54 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=3205 Continue reading ]]> Canada’s International Development Research Center and Harvard’s Berkman Center are convening a conversation today and tomorrow at Harvard on the future of information and communication technology and development (ICT4D). Global Voices will be participating in the event as a media partner, and I and Jen Brea will be twittering and live-blogging the event. You can find out far more about who’s around the table and what we’re planning on talking about on the Global Voices special coverage page, which includes links to the background papers prepared by participants.

We’re here in part so that you can have a voice in the discussions. Please feel free to post questions on Twitter, using the #idrc09 tag, or as comments on Global Voices posts – we’ll try hard to work those questions into the coversation here at Harvard. You may also want to use Berkman’s “question tool“, which will be used to put questions to the panelists at a public event this evening.


Rohinton Medhora of IDRC notes that we’ve spent much of this conference considering what’s changed in the world of ICT in the past six years. We’ve not talked much about how development and poverty have changed. The first Harvard forum, six years ago, looked at how ICT might apply “here, there and everywhere.” The critical example from that discussion was Mohammed Yunus’s story about women learning to use mobile phones and to build businesses. This forum’s story might be Amyarta Sen’s story about using a phone and resulting photos to change public opinion in Pakistan.

He offers a model – data – information – knowledge – wisdom – to help understand how ICT might affect education. “I suspect that ICT is only a small element in the gap from knowledge to wisdom.” Education is the great leveler in society, and we don’t yet understand how ICTs play out in the education field.

ICTs are moving from natural monopolies to public goods, merit good, and club goods. We’re seeing confusion on the regulatory side. In many cases, regulators don’t know what to make of technological developments – should LAN houses be considered as gambling houses? We’ve got a wide range of regulatory structures, and they’re very different in terms of mobile phones versus broadcast media, despite the increasing overlaps in these technologies.

Rohinton wonders about Mike Best’s idea of a set of “grand challenges” for ICT4D. We often talk about the unpredictable nature of the development of information technologies. “It’s not that these things are ‘unpredictable’ – it’s that our confidence interval is wider and wider.” This may mean it’s hard to figure out what those big questions are, but doesn’t change the importance of raising and answering them.


Yochai Benkler is worried that we’re oversimplifying the relationships between markets and states (or other authorities). Ronaldo Lemos’s stories about working with the International Development Bank to allow
musicians in Brazil to distribute music and build their own labels so they can make a living shows the complexity of these relationships. The formal market for digital music in Brazil is dysfunctional – tracks cost $1.50, an absurd price in a medium-income country – and so the next steps are to create markets that actually work and find reasonable prices.

“Opposing market versus state, market versus regulation, market versus social organization is too stark… We need to get beyond these dichotomies, towards an integrated market that allows people to innovate and make a living off of it.” Open platforms at the physical layer are part of this. But we need to realize that people are using these platforms to try to avoid the bureaucrats, both the state leaders and the corporate ones. There are ongoing tensions between freedom and control and that control can be markets and profits, political power, or patriarchies.

Yochai worries that there’s “pressure on those of us coming from left intellectual traditions to accept the idea that it’s okay for musicians to make money, that it’s okay for Onno Purbo to charge for community wireless workshops.” We need to expand our dialog beyond a discussion of pure market incentives versus state interventions. He recommends moving beyond talking about “incentives” to “motivations”. Motivations allows us to consider factors like solidarity, not just market forces. Introducing these factors helps us explain why people will support musicians, paying an average of
$1.25 a song, $8 an album for tracks they’re invited to download for free – voluntarily – as they have to support Jane Sibbery for years.

We need to understand that unserious applications – like LAN Houses – can lead to very serious implications. World of Warcraft may turn out to be an excellent environment to train leaders, or to help teenagers find adult authority figures they can rely on. (Joi Ito tells a story about an 18 year old kid who came to him, as WoW guild leare, for advice on whether he should join the military. Joi was the only adult who’s had his back for years, which made him the logical person to ask for this advice.) Because government influences and can undermine what we can do for development, we need to accept that open systems don’t always behave in ways we anticipate, and be open to the idea that we need to take seriously things we’re tempted to ignore.


Michael Spence acknowledges that we might not want to base our theories of economic development on Milton Friedman, but suggests that the great economist did get one important thing right – he made the point that you can’t solve problems without paying attention to incentives. “We fail his test all the time” in the field of development economics. And because we don’t think about incentives, we end up with Nash equilibriums that favor the powerful and leave the weak at a disadvantage, whether they’re in the public or private sector.

He asks us to think about focus, faith and measurement. “The problem of measuring the impact of ict4d is too hard to solve.” He urges us not to let it trip us up too badly. To explain the difficulty of studying effectiveness, he references the 1949 Communist takeover in China. “China in the 1950s did the best job any country has done educating children, at least through elementary school.” In a few years, literacy rates for men and women approached 90%. But China didn’t see significant economic benefits, because happened, because other aspects of the state and the economy were mismanaged and broken. When other aspects of economic management changed, the “potential asset” of a literate population rapidly turned into a real asset, one that’s helping the country grow at a profound rate.

“You can have progress in areas that affect people’s education, or access to information, but it might not have a visible effect,” because it’s blocked by other factors. Spence asks us to consider information technology in developing nations. Nations like the US made heavy IT investments for over thirty years and we saw few, if any, measurable gains. Recently, we’ve seen a steady 3% productivity increase, which we believe comes from taking the “potential asset” of IT and unlocking it via the Internet.

“Development economists try to measure impact of education via regression analysis. The results they turn up are mixed or negligible. But no one sensible would make policy decisions based on those results.”

With that, Spence asks us to have faith. “Assume that education and IT in various aspects are going to turn out to be terribly important.” And then get on with it and don’t worry much about measurement.

Education, in particular, is an area in which we need to have a great deal of faith. “Assuming some preconditions, development is the process of acquiring knowledge, not just by individuals but within systems.” He warns us off the term “knowledge economy” – it’s not that we’ve gone from shovelling coal to shovelling bits – we’re engaged in the process of making our citizens and systems more knowledgeable. To the extent that IT systems are knowledge systems, we need to keep our focus on education, on health, and on e-government, to the extent that government controls access to essential services.

He ends with a warning about stability. “A huge, important application of modern IT is the global supply chain and financial system. The financial trading superstructure is impossible without IT.” We need to think about the stability of these systems because the instability we just experienced wasn’t accurately predicted by anything. Our problem may be models – we interpret systems via models, and if those models are insufficiently accurate, we can see stability where we might need to anticipate instability.


We end with parting shots from dialog participants, who felt that points weren’t emphasized enough. I made the case that ICT was critical not just for education and entrepreneurship, but for creating an inclusive public sphere, and asked the room to take seriously the phenomenon of particiatory media, not just through blogs and viral videos, but through mobile phone calls made to community radio stations. Ineke Buskens warns us that, in a profoundly sexist world, attempts to treat ICT as gender-neutral will end up perpetuating power imbalances. Bill Melody warns us that the developed world is likely to ignore infrastructure, now that infrastructure works well, and that development projects can’t abandon infrastructure efforts. Clotilde Fonseca urges us to continue building pilot and demonstration projects so we can experiment with creative ideas that could be scaled and replicated. David Malone warns that we need to protect human rights from governments, which are inherently authoritarian and prone to exercise control.

In other words, to sum up… there’s a lot to sum up. As Mike Best observed last night, this field appears to be plagued by the problem that we need to consider dozens of factors simultaneously. If there’s a conclusion from today’s discussions, it’s that we all need a good bit of reminding of the key factors that need consideration to make sure we’ve got a sufficiently broad view of these issues.

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Harvard Forum – what do we need to know? http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2009/09/24/harvard-forum-what-do-we-need-to-know/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2009/09/24/harvard-forum-what-do-we-need-to-know/#comments Thu, 24 Sep 2009 14:44:29 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=3203 Continue reading ]]> Canada’s International Development Research Center and Harvard’s Berkman Center are convening a conversation today and tomorrow at Harvard on the future of information and communication technology and development (ICT4D). Global Voices will be participating in the event as a media partner, and I and Jen Brea will be twittering and live-blogging the event. You can find out far more about who’s around the table and what we’re planning on talking about on the Global Voices special coverage page, which includes links to the background papers prepared by participants.

We’re here in part so that you can have a voice in the discussions. Please feel free to post questions on Twitter, using the #idrc09 tag, or as comments on Global Voices posts – we’ll try hard to work those questions into the coversation here at Harvard. You may also want to use Berkman’s “question tool“, which will be used to put questions to the panelists at a public event this evening.


Yesterday’s conversations at the Harvard Forum on ICT4D orbited two general themes:

– the need to include conversations about inclusion of women, the poor, the marginalized into dialogs about ICT4D
– a debate about whether we embrace the success of the mobile phone as a tool for development or ask for more capabilities than we’re able to gain on mobile networks.

Today’s conversation starts with discussions of “knowledge gaps”, open questions we need to answer through research so we can understand what’s succeeding and failing in our field.

Clotilde Fonseca of the Omar Dengo Foundation suggests that we focus on creating effective indicators of impact. Educational projects often have difficulty expressing their impacts in language understood by development banks. Success stories are dismissed as anecdotal and not scaleable. Evaluating impacts just in terms of results on standardized tests, the standard evaluation framework, aren’t considering “ecologies of learning.”

Beyond evaluation criteria, we need to work on the development of standards, especially standards for teacher development. Scaling up projects from pilot phases to replicable states involves massive teacher development – this, in turn, requires us to ask questions about whether teachers are learning the skills and tools needed to scale and expand these projects.

Fonseca worries that we aren’t sufficiently studying “learning communities”, the power of collaboration, networking and sociability for education. These techniques are increasingly recognized as key to learning, but we’re not putting sufficient research into the value of networking and communities to education.

We need to broaden our views of what technology can mean for development. We tend to have limited and restricted views of what technologies are and can do. “There’s lots of magical thinking,” and a tendency to use a simplistic model – technology and development is the product of infrastructure plus content. She worries that while we understand what infrastructure is, we might not fully understand what content is and needs to be. The interventions suggested post-WSIS tend to be very technocentric and may overfocus on infrastructure over questions of content.

To allow a new generation to learn 21st century skills, we need to face cognitive issues, and learn how the mind actually functions. We need education to create learning skills. It’s been risky for governments like Costa Rica to address these issues, but it will be critical to solve these problems to fully embrace potentials for a digital future.


Laurent Elder of IDRC offers three concrete questions about knowledge gaps.

– We’re trying to create not just a knowledge society, but an inclusive, equitable knowledge society. Does openness help us achieve these goals? We worry that we’ve seen with the rise of the mobile phone doesn’t necessarily eliminate inequality – we’re seeing the GINI coefficient increase in countries with high mobile phone penetration. If we’re trying to increase inclusion, do open principles, open content licensing and open innovation help? We don’t know yet.

– IDRC sponsored a great deal of research and interventions around telecentres. There’s a debate about whether these telecentres were successful. Now IDRC is trying to determine whether building interventions (build our own telecentres) or incentives (support the construction of telecenters or other projects) is more succesful.

– How do “knowledge turns” – the cycle from hypothesis, testing, results to new hypothesis – affect different fields. In the semiconductor industry, knowledge turns take about 18 months, making this a very fast field. The health industry has a knowledge turn of about 8-10 years. Can we embrace these faster-moving cycles? How do we spur innovation at this pace, and what are the consequences of moving this quickly?


Mike Best takes on the emerging cleavages within the ICT4D field. He notes that we’re in danger of building unhelpful disciplinary walls, and that this wallbuilding contributes to the “common tendencies for this field to jog in place.”

A recent Doha conference on ICT4D raised the idea that we may want to split the ICT4D field into at least two camps. The computer scientists worry that their fields don’t see ICT4D as real computer science. In the hopes of raising the profile of this work, they’re planning an ACM special interest group, and considering a CS-only conference in conjunction with the next ICT4D conference in London. This, Mike argues, is a really bad idea.

Computer scientists tend to build ICT4D projects with this method: I decided to build this thing. I worked on it, I adjusted it. I took it to Ghana. I asked ten people – nine of them liked my thing. Computer scientists tend to dismiss work that doesn’t fit this paradigm, and especially work that doesn’t include fundamental technical innovation. Social scientists wonder whether fundamental techological innovations are really required for ICT4D work. “For either group to think they don’t need to sit at the same conferences together is worrisome.”

We’re making major mistakes, Mike worries. We tend to view the access to knowledge field as if “knowledge is a reified thing over there amd our job is to offer access to it. Schools, in this cartoon, is where children as empty vessels have information poured into them.” This may be a straw man, but it’s too common a point of view, and it’s a dangerous one.

We’re failing to be a progressive field – we fail to stand on the shoulders that have come before us. And since this field is only a decade old, we’ve failed to stand upon each other’s shoulders. Most projects end in failure – absolute failure, sustainability failure or partial failure. That’s not the problem – problem is our failure to learn from our failures.

Mike offers four suggestions to help save our field:

– We need to return to our interdisciplinary roots and read each other’s literature. It’s a problem that we’re all rewarded for writing, not for reading, our collective literature.

– Avoid technofetishism

– Find patient money that can support our work over time – Most projects Mike has worked on are 18 months or under.

– We need to find shared problems and methods especially in the realm of evaluation and assessment. Much as David Hilbert put through key problems in mathematics, we might want to identify the “Hilbert problems” in our field.


Onno Purbo makes it clear that he’s an activist, not a researcher. He’s both, actually, and he’s been one of the key figures in building open, community wireless networks in Indonesia. These networks are designed to save the expense of buying technology from the outside world. “You can use kitchen tools to create a network,” he tells us. “These networks are easily replicable in communities, but its a surprise that it’s possible to do these things. People don’t believe it’s possible until they see it on TV.”

Purbo sees a profound need to make information on community networking accessible to Indonesian communities. We need to translate from English into local languages. He’s able to measure success by looking at Google Trends and comparing searches for networking information using English and Indonesian terms – the interest in the Indonesian terms is increasing over time, suggestion more people comfortable in Indonesian are seeking this information.

One area where Indonesians are producing and sharing knowledge is around the idea of the “healthy internet”. Parents and schools are interested in providing access to the internet, but filtering out pornography – they share tips and techniques through blogs that discuss “healthy internet”. He tells us that there are now 2 million blogs in Indonesia on this topic, and a weekly blog award for the best writings on the topic.

Purbo’s wife focuses her work on ICT for women. She helps run a training program that spends three days teaching women how to operate office applications in Linux. The problem isn’t the course – it’s getting women to be able to take three days off from their work to take the training. Hivos has funded a salary for women participants, but this isn’t a sustainable model.

Purbo’s latest project involves using the internet within Indonesian schools. Only 4,000 or 240,000 have internet access, so the tools of choice are blogging platforms run from LiveCD or LiveDVD linux distributions, allowing for community publishing within a school, rather than on the live internet. (He offers us a distribution, but warns that it uses the Indonesian translation of WordPress.)

Finally, Purbo lets us know why he’s videoing our proceedings. “People in Indonesia are more inclined to learn from video than from text.” He asks that groups like IDRC consider offering incentives for video creation rather than for creating more texts.


Alison Gillwald reacts to Laurent’s provocations suggesting that open standards are neccesary, but not sufficient, to create innovation. On the idea of incentives versus interventions, she suggests that there are worthy activities – community media in minority languages, for instance – that can’t ever be profitable but are still worth doing. Addressing Mike’s questions about research, she notes that it’s very hard to find African scholars writing about ICT4D – “the African academic ethos is highly uncritical.” We need to fund local policy interventions that have community involvement, and this might help create local scholarship to analyze the success of these interventions.

Rohan Samarajiva worries that the policy progress we’ve made is modest, and short term. “The real achievement would be long-term, enlightened policy,” not oriented towards quick wins.

David Malone wonders what we’re missing in our discussions. He notes that we’ve focused heavily on mobiles, but hardly considered satellite television, which has also been a dramatic force for transformation in much of the world, especially the Arab world. He notes that Egypt’s media environment has transformed almost entirely – no one watches state-controlled media anymore – they watch Al Jazeera. But this hasn’t translated into activism on the ground, perhaps because activism on the ground doesn’t pay.

Anita Gurumurthy is concerned about Laurent’s question regarding interventions versus incentives, seeing an incentive strategy as overfocused on market mechanisms. She wonders if telecentres have failed because they were too early to provide services and content really useful to poor users. She points out that technologies are transforming public sphere, letting people come into the public sphere in new ways, and suggests that these capabilities go beyond the simple analysis of market supports.

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Harvard Forum: ICT4D and, and, and… http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2009/09/23/harvard-forum-ict4d-and-and-and/ Thu, 24 Sep 2009 00:37:02 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=3201 Continue reading ]]> Canada’s International Development Research Center and Harvard’s Berkman Center are convening a conversation today and tomorrow at Harvard on the future of information and communication technology and development (ICT4D). Global Voices will be participating in the event as a media partner, and I and Jen Brea will be twittering and live-blogging the event. You can find out far more about who’s around the table and what we’re planning on talking about on the Global Voices special coverage page, which includes links to the background papers prepared by participants.

We’re here in part so that you can have a voice in the discussions. Please feel free to post questions on Twitter, using the #idrc09 tag, or as comments on Global Voices posts – we’ll try hard to work those questions into the coversation here at Harvard. You may also want to use Berkman’s “question tool“, which will be used to put questions to the panelists at a public event this evening.


Professor Mike Best of Georgia Tech is our host at beautiful Ames Courtoom on the Harvard Law School campus for a conversation on ICT, development and freedom. The panel is absurdly illustrious: Amartya Sen, Michael Spence, Yochai Benkler and Clotilde Fonseca. Mike Best points us to Publius, where the essays framing our conversation today and tomorrow live – you can also find them on Global Voices.

Colin Maclay from Berkman notes how much of the conversation about ICT and development intersects with work we do at the Center, and nods towards our co-hosts IDRC, who he describes as doing the best work in the field of ICT4D. IDRC’s president, David Malone, reminds us that his organization was founded by another Nobelist, and has a unique mission in development – conducting original research on what does and doesn’t work in combatting poverty around the world.

Professor Best’s introduction is interrupted by a (staged) phonecall from his mother. It leads him to declare, “This is an instrument of tyranny! Why do we celebrate the mobile phone as an instrument for human development in the Global South?” And he wonders if this is all we need to solve problems of communication in he developing world.

Dr. Sen notes that the mobile phone makes Mike’s mother freer to call him. And he notes that the mobile phone may be considered in the same class as better nutrition – something we consider as an expansion of freedom, even if we can concieve of cases in which these devices have negative consequences. Improved nutrition can lead to increased domestic violence. But you’d never use this as an argument against better nutrition. A woman with a phone is free to call and report domestic violence, as a woman with good nutrition is free to work harder and share the benefits with her family. In other words, answering the question, “Do mobile networks enhance capabilities for the poor, his answer is: “Yes, yes, and but…”

Dr. Spence points out that when this group last convened, six years ago, mobile phone penetration was quite low. We speculated that mobile phone networks might outpace land-line penetration, and this has, in fact, come to pass. Mobile phones have avoided some of the effects of the “dead hand of the regulator”. Phones are a tool to fight oppression, he notes, as well as a tool that can allow you to save, invest and build a business. The cellphone allows delivery of key services – safe savings, the provisioning of credit. And it delivers information (or information lite) efficiently, and allows us to solve coordination problems.

Is that the whole answer? No. There’s a whole set of answers about knowledge translation and learning which aren’t well answered by the mobile phone. In our sessions today, Dr. Spence tells us, we agreed that the mobile phone is probably not the key ingredient in delivering education and knowledge transfer.

Mike asks Dr. Clotilde Fonseca to address mobile phones and learning environments in Costa Rica. She offers that the mobile is not yet a powerful device for learning, drawing a distinction between voice and data. Most of the mobiles and cellphones in the developing world don’t carry data well.

Communication is complicated, she tells us. Parents give children phones, hoping for better communication… but kids view this as an invasion of their privacy, and often enjoy the phone for other uses – calculator, IM device, watch. Right now, these tools are most useful for communication, and not for learning.

Professor Benkler fields a question about the mobile phone and centralization – does the mobile phone centralize communications and knowledge, or does it open access to information? He points out that everything is relative. The mobile phone is enormously decentralizing as a tool for sharing information, he reminds us, noting the story of fishermen using the phone to seek the optimum price for their fish. He references mobile phone cameras and their power to capture protests in Iran, and the potentials of mobile banking through systems like M-PESA, these systems are radically decentralizing in relation to baseline structures of power.

But when you compare this architecture to the architecture to the internet, it’s found sorely wanting. There are certain things you can and can’t do with mobile phones. Brazilian software developers can compete as equals in the free software market, but not on a mobile phone – you need a much more complex machine and a more thorough set of skills. He references a story I told about Ushahidi and the ability of the phone company to slow the process with the issuance of a shortcode – the shortcode ends up being the bottleneck to certain types of innovation. Relative to the industrial economy of the 20th century – it’s decentralized. Relative to our new world of the internet – it’s weak, and we need to move more to this generative networks where new uses can be introduced without permission.

Mike celebrates the nuance of these answers, noting that there’s generally been mobile phone euphoria in the ICT4D community. He turns to our online audience for questions about mobile phones – one of our questioners wants to know what levers for pressure we have over mobile phone networks to improve our current capacities and abilities?

Dr. Spence notes that there’s nothing better than competition to create price pressure and increased quality of service. The worry we have is that regulators may now arrive and screw up what we’ve accomplished with this new network. Dr. Sen notes that there are situations where the market sends misleading signals – it’s worth distinguishing between activities that are profit-friendly and those that aren’t. Profits come in many different ways – lack of competition is one way to generate them, and that’s how some mobile networks generate profits. In the US conversation about healthcare, we’re experiencing fear about competition from a public competitor – apparently, that’s enough to terrify people, which seems a bit absurd from a human development perspective.

Sen tells a story told earlier today, about the impact of mobile phones in changing Pakistani opinion on the Swat valley – see my earlier post. The point is that a mobile phone photo of a woman being flogged by the Taliban managed to change political opinion about a deal with Taliban authorities. The ability to take photos – and pretend you were calling your mother while you took them – turns the phone into a very powerful device. Regulation is important, he offers, but doesn’t help us with these unexpected, unpredictable uses of these technologies.

Yochai points to the FCC Chairman’s announcement of a net neutrality policy, pointing out that one of the most surprising aspects was an extention of the net neutrality principle to wireless access, specifically along the non-discrimination of applications. If we don’t have perfect competition – a duopoly or similarly closed market – our next best bet is to ensure that these networks are open and behave much more like the internet. This is a step in the right direction – towards standards, habits and practices – which suggests you might create a more generative network in the US and the developing world. He point to networks in France and the adoption of wireless networks attached to a fixed wireless network to create a large, nomadic wireless network (ala Fon). If you push back a little on the idea that the solution all needs to be mobile, it’s possible to build better, more open, more functional networks.

Mike tosses the classic “either/or” question to Dr. Fonseca – does it make sense to give a computer or a mobile phone to a person who doesn’t have food security? This is a false dichotomy, she tells us. Development is not linear. We need to consider the capacities a person needs to be part of a new economy. Improving livelihood and access to better food, to the capacity to learn and to solve problems may all be connected. Mobiles are just devices that link to more powerful devices – if we just seem in isolation, we misunderstand the whole picture. They can be devices for capturing information and data, for communicating and connecting with objects. We need to think of these devices as ones that help solve problems in our community.

Sen echoes the skepticism about “this or that”. He feels like this sort of thinking plagues policy circles. “When I first came to India, someone asked me, ‘What three things would you do to better India?’ I answered, ‘Why only three things? Why accept those limits?’… Food first, freedom later is the wrong way to think about it.” Complexity can be a difficulty, and sometimes we need to simplify, but simplifying into “which first, which later” isn’t helpful – thinking about what the priorities should be is a more helpful way of simplifying.

Dr. Spence wonders about a dysfunctional propensity in debates over the developing world to look for silver bullets. The either/or question is a form of silver bullet – it’s not something we ask in Silicon Valley, for instance.

Spence wonders whether the ability of people in developing nations, like India and China, have an advantage in discussing these ideas because they tend to be more practical and less ideological – they tend not to have the religious attachment to markets we have in this country. In China, if the financial leaders think there’s a housing bubble, they go to the banks and increase capital markets for loans – we never do that in the US, because we believe the market takes care of it. It horrifies the purists – but we need to combine wise, analytical thinking with practical wisdom.

Yochai quotes Sen, saying, “I’ve heard democracies don’t have famines.” He notes that government matters – it’s possible to design ICT systems that help squeeze our corruption, as they seem to be in India as eGovernment systems come online. He references Ronaldo Lemos’s story about LAN houses, 90,000 mostly illegal cybercafes, housing musicians who distribute using Orkut – a market that’s entirely outside of existing market mechanisms, payloa systems for music. In a decentralized system, you get massive new opportunities for entrepreneurship, which leads to economic growth.

An online question focuses on the balance between preserving traditional knowledge and embracing remix culture. Questions from the audience concentrate on electric power, and reflect fascination with solar power charging battery systems? Another question wonders how governments can move from encouraging IT consumption to entrepreneurship. Mike asks Ineke Buskins to ask about gender – she asks what we can do in policy interventions to get rid of the mistake of dysfunctional “gender-blind” policies.

Dr. Spence warns us that decentralized energy systems don’t relieve us from the responsibility to spend 5-7% of our economies on building infrastructure. They’re transitional technologies. “If you want to enable rural people, you need to build roads so they can get in and out,” and participate in the market economy. You can work on these interim solutions, but don’t let them blind you to the need to spend – significantly – on infrastructure that enables growth. Outside of the 13 fastest growing countries, infrastructure investment gets crowded out and stalls development.

Spence argues that gender-neutral isn’t a good policy “in a world that’s not gender neutral now. He notes how hard India’s working on these projects – in India, he says, most people think that affirmative action to deal with systematic discrimination from the caste system, is a fair thing to do. Safety to and from school, appropriate lavoratory facilities are asymmetric interventions, but they make the process of education fairer for girls, making it possible for them to enter productive adulthood.

Yochai fields the question from the net on remix culture and cultural preservation. The ICT4D debate has been about distributing basic material capabilities to environments where they can be combined with human capabilities, increasing the potential for knowledge production and human development. The other resource beyond intelligence and creativity is culture – “we make new knowledge out of old knowlege, new culture out of new culture.”

We’ve had a parallel debate on open access to cultural materials. It’s been part of the generalization of the trade system, the creation of the WTO and the incorporation of intellectual property into the world trade system. That’s created a strong relationship between IP exporters (US, Europe, Japan) and IP importers (everyone else) where the exporters ask for their IP to be protected in exchange for opening their non-IP markets. The problem isn’t that you don’t have material tools, or creativity – the problem is that you can’t use knowledge or culture because it belongs to someone else.

In a case of intellectual jiu-jitsu, we can protect indigenous knowledge with the same tools we use to protect Hollywood movies. This may not be intellectually coherent – we might argue that patents aren’t useful for most inventions while trade protections are a way of protecting indigenous knowledge. Yochai worries this is a bad argument, a hard one to sell, and that we might be better off simply seeking complete open access to knowledge.

Sen notes that there’s not only no gender-neutral situations – gender dynamics are buried, and harder to identify than class-based dynamics because there are no class lines within nuclear families. He references an old study in India – if you ask men “are you ill?”, 45% confess to being ill. 0% of women offer that answer. There was a theory, briefly, that perhaps women were healthier than men based on a statistical illusion, which had to do with an overreporting of dead male relations over female ones. Now, we’re seeing in current studies in Calcutta similar health reports from men and women, suggesting that women are increasingly willing to grumble, which Sen takes as a good sign.

Fonseca references the OLPC and its experiments with powering computers via alternative energy sources. Alternative sources are important, but so is building extremely efficient computers and phones. On issues of technology literacy, she believes we need to look for technology fluency, the ability to understand the principles digital technologies interact within, and the existence of a cohort of young people who can move ahead, creating new applications, not staying connected to ones that will be obsolete in the short run. Finally on the gender discussion – she suggests we need to move beyond a purely policy-focused discussion, to a discussion about how men and women relate to technology. A Seymour Papert and Sherri Turkle paper identified diverse ways of interacting with programming and suggests we need to recognize different approaches, and not force a single mainstream approach.

And that’s where we end. Mike Best suggests there’s no way to summarize these discussions… but offers the observation that our field is filled with “ands”. Regulation matters, and technology matters, and capacity matters and government and infrastructure, and investment and women matter. “We need to embrace and and avoid or.”

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Jennifer Bussell on eGovernment, corruption and governance http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/10/24/jennifer-bussell-on-egovernment-corruption-and-governance/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/10/24/jennifer-bussell-on-egovernment-corruption-and-governance/#comments Fri, 24 Oct 2008 14:50:38 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=2318 Continue reading ]]> For the past decade or so, there’s been a movement to bring computers, telephones and other “information and communication technology” into developing nations to increase economic development and eliminate poverty. Those of us involved with this movement – colloquially called ICT4D (Information and communication technology for development) – have argued that information imbalances underly major problems in economic development. If farmers don’t know fair prices for their commodities in big cities, they’ll sell for too little money. If students can’t access textbooks or other resources, they’re doomed to a poor education.

There’s a strong critique of ICT4D that argues that the importance of information is overstated and that ICT4D proponents either overvalue information technology because they’re personally attached to the tools, or more sinisterly, because they’re looking to create developing world markets for these tools. Many supporters of ICT4D – myself included – will concede that there are lots of badly thought out and poorly executed projects that do little more than drop expensive technology in areas where it’s a scarce resource and likely to stay a scarce resource for a long time to come.

One bright light for the ICT4D field has been the rise of eGovernment, a movement that tries to get governments to deliver key services to citizens using digital technology. India has been the location for many eGovernment pilot projects, some of which have been very successful in delivering key information services to citizens. In many states, citizens can visit information centers where they can obtain driver’s licenses, business licenses, residency or birth certificates, and other critical documents.

Jennifer Bussell, a political scientist who recently completed a PhD at UC Berkeley, has spent a great deal of time studying these projects and asks a tricky and important question about eGovernment in India – why do some states adopt eGovernance more readily than others? Are there policy environments that we can put in place to make it more likely that eGovernment projects will succeeed and that they’ll affect the lives of citizens positively?

In a talk at the Berkman Center on Tuesday, she offered an interesting opening paradox. The state of Karnataka is comparatively wealthy and extremely engaged with information technology – its capital is Bangalore, the epicenter of India’s technology and outsourcing industries. Chhattisgarh is a new state, carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000, and is extremely poor and low-tech. We’d expect eGovernment services to catch on in Karnataka much more quickly than in Chhattisgarh… and we’d be wrong. eGovernment has caught on far more quickly in this young, poor state than in the technology giant, raising questions about what factors actually contribute to the success or failure of eGovernment projects.

To understand what’s going on in these two states – and indeed, across many of India’s states (Bussell developed her theories in seven Indian states and has tested them on nine additional states, analyzing 16 of India’s 28 states) – it’s important to understand corruption, and how eGovernment might affect corruption. Indian citizens pay a lot of money in bribes. It’s estimated that Indians pay $5 billion USD annually to bribe government officials. Sometimes this is wealthy citizens paying money to “jump the queue” and obtain services more quickly that average citizens. But extremely poor citizens pay bribes as well – Bussell references a study that suggests that citizens below the poverty line collectively paid $22 million in bribes to access essential and guaranteed government services.

Taking old, paper-based bureacracies and turning them into “e-government” services appears to squeeze some opportunities for corruption – “rent-seeking”, in the language of political economics – out of the system. It’s not entirely clear why this is – the service centers rolled out in Indian states don’t generally put computers in the hands of citizens and let them access services directly. There’s an opportunity for the operators of these new systems to seek bribes. But the digitalization of India’s massive railway system is a good example of what’s happened in some eGovernment systems. Before digitalization, it was difficult to purchase a ticket without knowing someone to bribe within the system. Now tickets can be purchased online, and transactions within railway stations are simple, efficient and bribe-free (even if you’re a clueless American looking for trains from Rajastan to Delhi, as happened to me not very long ago.)

Bussell argues that e-services tend to systematically reduce corruption, and that they therefore can be threatening to existing political elites. Elites have the power of transferring bureacrats, moving them from a job where it’s easy to seek bribes (the customs service) to one where it’s harder to do so. They exercise this power by demanding kickbacks from bureacrats, which they use as campaign finance. A politician whose political livelihood relies on control of bribes and rent-seeking officials is likely to be threatened by eGovernment efforts and might fight their introduction.

Bussell further theorizes that the removal of bribes could be a threat to political stability within coalition governments. A coalition can be thought of as a group of politicians all seeking a share of the benefits of being in control of a state’s government – part of this control includes control over offices with a high chance for gains through corruption. So she theorizes that we’ll see eGovernment projects succeed in areas where there’s lower corruption, and where there’s a single party in power.

She studies eGovenrment adoption by tracking how many services are available in a given state – some offer just a few, like driver’s licenses, while others offer dozens. Her models try to explain the adoption of eGovernment services in terms of several factors. Some turn out to be largely irrelavent. Technology infrastructure isn’t statistically significant in explaining why some states have aggresively embraced eGovernment. Nor is the time of adoption – states that started eGovernment earlier aren’t neccesarily ahead of the curve. And the level of economic development isn’t statistically significant either.

Corruption, on the other hand, is a strong factor – states with above average corruption (based on surveys by groups like Transparency International) have adopted 10.6 services on average, while those with below-average corruption average out at 20.1 services. Unitary government matters as well – single party governments with below average corruption adopt services more aggresively than coalition governments, even in below-average corruption states.

This is useful information for anyone attempting to build eGovernment systems and roll them out in developing nations, though it doesn’t offer much insight on what to do if you’re in a high-corruption, coalition-governed area. (Duck and cover, perhaps.) And there’s a intriguing larger question – how does the introduction of eGovernment affect corruption in the long term? Do states that adopt eGovernment systems become progressively less corrupt over time? Bussell’s intrigued by these questions and looking for ways to study them going forward, which is good news for anyone who cares about ICT4D and wants to make sure people are doing rigorous, careful evaluation of what works and what fails.

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Visualizing Social Networks… in Excel http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/07/29/visualizing-social-networks-in-excel/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/07/29/visualizing-social-networks-in-excel/#comments Tue, 29 Jul 2008 20:27:45 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=2134 Continue reading ]]> In the spirit of attending OPCs – “other people’s conferences”, conferences where you’re invited, but not part of the demographic/professional group the conference is aimed at – I’m now at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit. I’m not a computer scientist, not university teaching faculty, and I’m not doing any research sponsored by Microsoft… all of which turns out to be okay, as it’s a pretty interesting gathering looking at current research topics in computer science, with a strong emphasis on the study of social networks… something that interest me, even if I’m not doing a ton of active work on the topic.

This emphasis on social network studies helps explain why I’m currently sitting in a packed conference room, learning about an extension to Excel. Even at Microsoft conferences, Excel extensions don’t usually get this type of attention. But the extension, .NetMap, has been developed by Marc A. Smith, a pioneering researcher on social networks who’s done important work on analyzing relationships in Usenet groups in his time at Microsoft Research.

Much of Marc’s recent work has looked at behavioral patterns in technical support newsgroups in Usenet. As it turns out, these groups are still hugely important for people looking for technical support (even in the days of pervasive spam) and Microsoft is interested in cultivating the utility of these networks. Rather than analyzing the content of these newsgroups (hard to do, as they’re huge), Smith and his team looked at structures. They did a great deal of network mapping, graphing the posts and responses, and seeing the structures that emerge. At least three types have emerged:

– Answer people – these people almost never post new threads, but answer the queries of a large number of unconnected people. In network terms, they’ve got high out-degree and low in-degree. These folks are utterly essential in the functioning of technical newsgroups, as they’re the folks that newbies end up getting support from

– Reply magnets – some people have a gift (or a technique) for posting in a way that gets responses. Reply magnets are the opposite of answer people – they post infrequently and everyone answers. Smith sees roughly 0.5% of these people in newsgroups, but their posts get 30% of the responses from roughly 30% of all users. Basically, these folks are specialists in setting the agenda, which has interesting implications for political discussions in newsgroups, as these folks are capable of nominating agenda topics with much more success that the average user.

– Discussion people both post and answer a lot, and have long, sustained connections with lots of people. They’re the classic discussion group user, but they’re less common that we tend to assume.

If we can ennumerate these discussion types, we can characterize different ecosystems in terms of what users live in what ecosystems. It’s possible that these roles change over time – so far, Marc observes that most people seem to stay in their roles, but attenuate over time, becoming less active. It would be very interesting to see whether there are networks where people become more interactive over time. (Facebook, for instance.)

Smith observes that as social media becomes the dominant media online, we’re moving from the anonymous to the “named” internet – content created generally has an identity, real or psuedonymous, attached to it. As such, we’re getting incredible sets of data that social scientists can study, because “all social media leaves ties”, and “our relationships are increasingly self documenting.”

Screenshot from .NetMap

Here’s the thing – it’s increasingly easy to find this data, but hard to map it in meaningful ways. Smith observes that there are a couple of good Java toolkits for social network mapping but, oddly, no feature in Excel. So he and his group have built one. Using their tool – .NetMap, which can be downloaded at Codeplex, Microsoft’s Source Forge-like repository for open source projects, plugs into Excel and lets you enter a list of relationships, and get output as a network map. The tool is integrated with Windows to provide one of the coolest demonstration feature – the tool will index your mail and graph your personal social network based on your mail interactions.

One thing that becomes very clear is that you want to filter these maps – with some pretty simple excel manipulations, it’s possible to filter a map to the strongest ties and to visualize the vertices in different ways. As Marc gives his talk, one of his collaborators crunches a set of data from Digg and is able to demonstrate that there aren’t small, competing groups within Digg who upvote on only certain topics – what there is instead is a core of highly active users who tend to upvote across different topics.

I’m looking forward to using the tool, but a bit disappointed that it currently works only on Windows – I suspect a lot of social scientists are using alternative platforms, and hope that as the project moves out of the research space and into the mainstream, it will be more widely supported.

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Fill the Gap II, and an update on the Kenyan situation http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/01/12/fill-the-gap-ii-and-an-update-on-the-kenyan-situation/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/01/12/fill-the-gap-ii-and-an-update-on-the-kenyan-situation/#comments Sat, 12 Jan 2008 20:20:30 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/01/12/fill-the-gap-ii-and-an-update-on-the-kenyan-situation/ Continue reading ]]> Firoze Manji from Fahamu and Pambazuka News gave the Fill the Gap conference a thorough overview of the current crisis in Kenya. He was last in his home country four weeks ago, shortly before the controversial elections and the violence that resulted from the electoral dispute.

The current situation, which Firoze describes as “very, very dangerous” is the result of “an effective coup in Kenya”. He reminds us of the events that have led up to the violence:

– Election commission officials declared that the vote had been rigged
– Within 45 minutes of the announcement that results were fraudulent, the Kibaki government inaugurated itself in the presence of the military
– The private inauguration was followed by a blanket ban on live media
– Simultaneously, security forces were deployed on the streets.

Manji notes that “Everyone is asking for peace. But peace can only be obtained through truth and justice.” Demands being put forward by groups challenging Kibaki’s actions include:

– an immediate independent inquiry into election results
– an invalidation of the results, which includes a recognition that no one is currently in a position to claim the presidency
– a stop to unconstitutional actions, including an announcement of a cabinet, or the calling of the 10th parliament.

In the efforts to bring parties to the table to negotiate, mediated by the AU, Kofi Annan or others, these demands should be preconditions. Instead, the documents that are trying to bring Kibaki and Odinga together implicitly recognize Kibaki as the president, addressing him with the titles you’d apply to a sitting president, not a challenger in a disputed election. Mediators have proposed a committee that doesn’t have the power neccesary to settle the dispute. And Kibaki’s position that a coalition should share power is absurd, given that Odinga’s party has 100 seats to Kibaki’s 40 or so. Manji points out that Kibaki’s party lost 22 cabinet ministers in the election, incluing Nobel Prize winner Wangari Mathai – losses like that display the widespread anger about the dysfunction of his leadership.

Too much of the discussion of electoral violence, Manji tells us, focuses on tribal violence. He offers an analysis suggesting that there are three major forms of violence:

– Spontaneous reaction violence when Kibaki seized power and when the cabinet was announced. “When people face injustice, their unfortunate reaction is to seek revenge.” This revenge can – and has – manifested as members of one ethnic group attacking others, but has also had economic dimensions.

– Milita violence, which Manji argues is more serious that the spontaneous violence. These militias are politically motivated an are engaging in killing, burning, raping and female genital mutilation. We’re not seeing this occur along the coast, but in the Rift Valley, these militias have a history going back to the 1990s, when Moi attempted ethnic cleansing in the Rift. There should have been a parliamentary inquiry in the last parliament, but Kibaki refused to investigate the situation. The church burning in Eldoret is a political, militia action, not tribal violence.

– State violence. Manji asserts that there have been at least 500 extrajudicial killings by state actors, beginning before the elections and continuing through the post-election violence. This aspect of the conflict, he feels, is being completely undercovered.


Given the seriousness of the situation in Kenya that Manji discussed, it seemed almost trivial to return to the topic at hand in the meeting – the question of whether mobile phones can contribute to economic development, or whether the focus of the development community on mobile technologies is simply a matter of hype. Manji and I have been set up to debate the issue, with me positioned as a cyberoptimist and Manji as a skeptic. This isn’t entirely true, of course – Fahamu has done groundbreaking work in using mobile phones for activist purposes, and I’ve written my share of pieces criticizing cyberoptimism.

(Fahamu tried an interesting experiment some years ago, seeking support for a declaration on African women’s rights. They ran an online petition campaign, allowing people to sign the petition via SMS. The campaign got a great deal of media attention, in part because Graca Michel (Nelson Mandela’s current wife) spoke about the campaign at a public meeting and signed the petition from her mobile while on stage. But the campaign, Manji tells us, actually garnered only a few hundred text messages. It was far more effective as a PR stunt than as a technique for political inclusion. And the success of the campaign came from traditional organizing, not the special magic of the mobile phone.)

“Why aren’t we having a conference on pencils?” Manji asked. “Pencils have contributed more to social transformation than mobile phones.” This flusters the moderators a bit, but his point is clear – it’s not about the tools, but about their social purpose. “It’s how people use the tools around them, whether they’re bricks, pencils or mobile phones.” Phones are interesting, I assert, because they’re increasingly pervasive, and because they’re enabling behaviors that aren’t possible with pencils: realtime communication over long distances.

While Manji acknowledges the power of the mobile and its possible importance, he’s insistent that we understand the “political economy” behind the device as well. The cost per minute in developing nations is much higher than we pay for monthly subscription services in the North. “Technology exacerbates and amplifies social differentiation,” he argues. Economic differences and tensions already present in societies are brought into sharper relief with the introduction of new technologies. Suddenly a person wealthy enough to own a phone has powers and capabilities his poorer neighbor lacks.

Manji and I had the greatest difficulty seeing eye to eye when his argument expanded into a general critique of development. Despite a focus on economic development for the past four decades, “there’s been a growth in the size of unemployment, a decline in real living standards, an increase in child mortality and in maternal mortality. We’re worse off than we were at independence.” It’s unclear to me that a focus on developing businesses in developing nations should be blamed for these abysmal results – widespread political corruption, theft of tax revenues and development dollars, and the effects of HIV/AIDS clearly have to take some of the blame as well.

But I take Manji’s point that new technologies can be used for destructive as well as productive purposes. He notes that all Kenyans received a text message from President Kibaki shortly after he’d inaugurated himself, appealing for calm. “How did Kibaki get my phone number? This is a major breach of privacy.”

Ultimately, he and I agree that it’s worth reviewing situations where mobile phones have enhanced existing political movements – activists using mobile phones to organize public actions, to monitor elections, to report gender violence. And we agree that the phone itself isn’t magic, but needs to enhance an existing social movement. As for whether strengthening market-based institutions leads to economic development or towards the ongoing capitalist, colonialist enslavement of Africa… well, that discussion may have to wait for another day.


One of the more interesting ideas that came up in the question and answer session was that of a socially-responsible, NGO-run phone company in a developing nation. Such a firm would compete against for-profit firms, and would have twin goals of bringing prices down for consumers and reinvesting profits in providing affordable coverage to rural areas. My guess is that such a company could have a profound effect on market prices, if – and only if – it could rely on the international NGO/foundation community for startup funding, and if local governments permitted it to function on a level playing field. Still, an intriguing idea.

Thanks to Fill the Gap and the sponsors, which included Hivos, IICD, OneWorld.nl and De Balie – I had a great time and really enjoyed the discussion… even the part where Firoze called me “a romantic”.

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Fill the GAP – Netherlands http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/01/11/fill-the-gap-netherlands/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/01/11/fill-the-gap-netherlands/#comments Fri, 11 Jan 2008 14:32:42 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/01/11/fill-the-gap-netherlands/ Continue reading ]]> My 2008 is off to a running start, with my first transatlantic flight in the second week of the new year. I’m in the Netherlands for a couple of days, meeting with Hivos, one of the sponsors of Global Voices, and speaking at Fill the Gap, an annual event focused on IT in developing nations. I’m giving my standard stump speech on mobile phones and activism, followed by a debate with some of my co-panelists. I had breakfast with Firoze Manji of Pambazuka News, and he and I had a lot to debate over our morning coffee, so I suspect this will be a lively conversation.

Dr. Christoph Stork of the Link Centre at Wits University, is a researcher on the econommic impact of ICTs in an African context. His group has one studies on “household e-access and e-usage”, as well as reviews of the ICT sector across Africa. His most recent study focuses on the relationship between mobile phones and development.

Stork puts the private sector squarely at the heart of economic development, and SME (small and medium enterprise) business as the most important business sector, as most of the world’s poor work for SMEs. His survey covered 3967 small businesses across 14 countries, roughly 280 in each country. This is a difficult group to survey – people don’t like reporting their income to a researcher for fear that it will lead to increased taxation, for instance.

The businesses he surveyed were tech and non-tech businesses – he shows photos of public phones (usually, a mobile phone, a chair and an umbrella, manage by an operator, as well as slides of businesses like hairdressers. He points out that hairdressing in Africa can take many hours, as it can require multiple hours to dress a women’s hair – having access to mobiles can help people find a time when the client and hairdresser both have time to spare.

His group classifies businesses in terms of formality – are they registered for VAT? do they have a fixed address? do they have contracts with their employees? There’s different patterns of usage between the most and least formal businesses studied. Asking each business what terms of communications technology they use – phones, computers, mail, post office boxes – there are very different levels of usage… except with mobile phones. Nearly every business, formal or informmal, uses mobile phones and consider them to be highly important to their business.

Stork found a significant positive coorelation between business turnover and mobile usage, as strong as 0.90 in some sectors. Because coorelation doesn’t prove causation, he uses a complex model to analyze profit margins, labor productivity and reinvestment in business. After showing us a few screens full of ata and equations, he assures us, “There’s no doubt – ICTs help SMEs become more profitable.”

The complaints about ICT in an African context is about cost – about 60% of business owners complain about cost and 8% say that lack of financial resources keep them from using ICTs. Despite these costs, Stork argues that mobiles are the most used tools for support of SMEs.

One of the moderators mentions that these are hardly surprising conclusions. Dr. Stork retorts, “Good social research confirms the obvious.” That’s a line I’m planning on using in the future.

Lottee Pelckmans from the African Studies Center at the University of Leiden is working on a multi-country study of the social use of mobile phones in an African context. The study is going to focus on Uganda, Cameroon, Chad, Mali and Tanzania, and look at the “social and local construction of mobile phones.” She tells us that the “mobile phone is a type of intensification process” – it creates more time in the day for the user, the ability to accomplish more things. Phone ownership has become a form of group membership, which has some downsides – people are finding ways to share phones not just so they can communicate, but as a social signifier.

There’s a great deal to be studied in terms of mobile usage and calling behavior. She tells us about “beeping” – soemtimes called “flashing” – where people call and immediately hang up. It’s a way of signaling someone that you want to talk without incurring charges. In Mali, the phone network doesn’t charge you until three seconds into a call… which means that some people carry out 30 minute long conversations three seconds at a time. Christoph Stork points out that you can tell a great deal about social status from flashing – if someone flashes you, they’re assuming you’re wealthier and better able to pay for the call than you are.

Shafiu Shaibu from the SEND Foundation in Ghana is interested in how information resources can transform the life of farmers in north-eastern Ghana. His group partners with the ministry of food and agriculture’s market enumerators, who track prices in food markets across Ghana. They disseminate this information to markets in towns like Salaga, Kpandi and Kete-Krachi on bulletin boards, chalk boards posted in prominent places in the community. The prices show the value of the commodity in nearby urban areas, which lets farmers choose whether they’d like to sell goods locally or export them to a larger market.

Shaibu’s project tried to use internet systems to get price information, but costs of access via VSAT were too high – using the mobile phone proves to be more effective for these small bits of data. The project serves 43 communities, all of which have mobile connectivity, but only three have access to land lines. Those lines are less reliable than the mobile phones, as they can be damaged by copper thieves, and can become inaccessible during storms and other weather. He argues that cost isn’t a major issue, as very low-end, used mobiles might be available for as low as one euro each. “Once you have the handset, paying for the connection is not a problem,” because units are available at low cost.

Dr. Stork was surprised that SEND wasn’t using radio to disseminate this information. Shaibu explains that the only local FM station is based in Tamale and is too far from most communities. Other radio stations simply rebroadcast from Accra and aren’t open to local information. Stork mentions a system in Uganda – send a text message with a commodity name to a certain number and you’ll receive pricing information from around the continent.

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