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Free Speech and ICT4D14:12, April 8, 2011

The recent race to fund, what is generally described as, democratizing technology made me go back and re-read an article from last fall. Written by Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian exile based in the Netherlands and the Advocacy Director of Global Voices Online, it has the cumbersome—but quite informative—title The Internet Freedom Fallacy and the Arab Digital Activism.

It’s truly an interesting read in a time where world leaders (and pundits) are trying to understand and explain what forces set off the avalanche of protests in the Arab world. A very common explanation has been to attribute a lot of credit to the new media landscape – and also to services created by western companies, such as Twitter and Facebook. Even though some weeks have passed, we’re pretty much in the eye of the storm, and it can be difficult to maintain perspective on everything that happens.

Interestingly enough, Ben Gharbia’s article is about the relationship between the activists and the western countries, written some six months before the revolution. At least to me, that puts some extra weight behind his arguments. Basically, he questions whether or not active western involvement in providing certain services are beneficial or if it is, at worst, actually hurting the very same struggle it sets out to help.

Follow the Money
My renewed interest in this topic—apart from being pulled in by the gravity of inspiring change—comes from the government pledges in the months. Millions of dollars have been earmarked for the struggle of Internet freedom and free speech online. Internet activists are the new revolutionaries; the sparks that lights the fire of democracy, it seems. Hillary Clinton made them part of the US foreign policy and the Swedish government where quick to follow.

I took part in a meeting at the Swedish Department for Foreign Affairs where representatives from the private sector, NGOs and academia. At the request of the Minister for International Development Cooperation, we were invited to discuss the need for support to Internet activists and how the Swedish government could assist in such matters. A vocal part of the group were entrepreneurs who were restless to get going with services in democracy’s favor. While I certainly applaud the initiative they show, I also maintain that the fearless quality often associated with venture capitalists might be difficult—and risky—to apply to development projects.

No Good Do-Gooders?
With some insight from the traditional NGO sector, I know that spending the dollars wisely is of uttermost importance, not only for the “investors” but also for the recipients. While there are many terrific development projects across the world, rest assured that they didn’t come about by chance. They are the result of a lot of smart people’s hard work and experience – some drawn from a lot of very costly mistakes.

The international “aid industry”—to use a quite derogatory term—has a history lined with failed projects. Some of these projects were small – others were enormously huge. At best, failure meant that money flushed down the toilet. At worst, it destroyed lives, societies, resources or infrastructure for decades.

Some secondary effects of the failures were even worse as it dented people’s trust in the institutions – both on their and on our end. Such mistrust is deeply unfortunate as it damages any opportunity to build strong civil institutions because they are­—you guessed it—based around trust.

It is humbling to remember is that also disastrous projects were designed and implemented with the best of intentions.

Designing successful development projects, regardless if its support of an advocacy group, human right or humanitarian work, is not something to be taken lightly. In private enterprise, venture capitalists risk their own money. Nothing more, nothing less. If a product fails, the VC walks away with a little less money. If a development project fail, the consequences for people can be devastating. Say a routing protocol designed specifically to help Iranians circumvent their Internet blocking would be compromised, and thousands of people would be jailed because of it, can we just shrug and say: “Ehum, well, we tried!”?

Always remember that simply wanting to do good is no guarantee that you will do good.

My Unordered Checklist
While I realize that I might seem hesitant to the benefits of development aid, I can assure you that is not the case. But, one has to remember that it has it’s own logic, just like any area. I’ve outlined a few points, specifically with regards to Internet projects, that I think should be considered with great care.

  1. The beneficiaries should initiate projects. Trust people’s inherent capacity as well as their ability to know what’s best for them. Don’t master them or push technology or ideology down their throats. That would, more often than not, do more harm than good.
  2. Maintain a network that’s free and neutral. Political ideology is not basis for discrimination – it will only bring suspicion. Live by the values you preach and differentiate the medium from the message.
  3. Encourage strong civil institutions. They weave networks of trust between people. And trust build nations.
  4. Ensure sustainability. External support is always finite and the project must be designed to keep going, even after you’re gone.
  5. Last, but certainly not least: Work to fulfill the rights of people, rather than the needs of beneficiaries. Use a human rights based approach. Use Article 19. Live by it.
ICT4D12:50, February 17, 2011

The recent turmoil in the Arab countries, and the hope that we will see democracy in a region of the world where despotism has been norm for decades, has made politicians to turn to new technologies for cues on the future of international aid.

Only days apart, both the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the Swedish minister for development cooperation, Gunilla Carlsson, has made public announcements that resources will be made available to develop Internet technologies in the service of democracy (link in Swedish).

The approach from the Swedish government is pretty hands-on and through a public invitation (link in Swedish) there’s a call for suggestions on how best to use the resources. Bambuser, the streaming video service, has been mentioned (link in Swedish) as an example of technology that could be interesting. I also hope for more radical projects like Freedom Box (even though it might be sensitive considering it can also be used to circumvent “our own” laws?).

Net activists are encouraged to contribute at a meeting held on March 10th.

A Silver Bullet?
It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I’m believer in international aid and democratization. And, that I believe that technology can play an important role in redefining societies. At the same time it is important to consider that technology itself is not an end but merely a mean. While the Internet surely played a part in the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, it should not be considered a silver bullet. This is not the first time that new technologies are catalysts in revolutions. Just imagine how the telegraph changed the world. Or the phone system. Or radio!

In fact, I would suggest that any societal shift in paradigm have been, to some extent, enabled by the use of new technology. At the same time, there was never a guarantee that all societies with access to the same technology would evolve along the same path.

The most important role for new media is to increase access to the public sphere, strengthen civil society and providing a channel for news, views and reports from the most remote corners of the world. It’s a slow-moving and tedious job.

ICT4D17:56, October 22, 2010

Though the fight is less Batman and more committee, the UNs latest report on how ICTs can be used to alleviate poverty is interesting and highlights a very important role for technology to play. There are no guarantees that improved access to ICTs leads to poverty reduction. Information accessed through ICTs has to be relevant and appropriately presented to benefit the poor, reflecting the needs, skills and capabilities of the latter.

Better information – better decisions
Poor people often lack access to information that is vital to their lives and livelihoods, including weather reports, market prices and income-earning opportunities. Such lack of information adds to the vulnerability of the people concerned. In terms of livelihood strategies, information plays a dual role: informing and strengthening the short-term decision-making capacity of the poor themselves; and informing and strengthening the longer-term decision-making capacity of intermediaries that facilitate, assist or represent the poor. The contribution of ICTs to poverty reduction through enterprise lies in their power to give poor women and men access to improved information and better communications to help them build livelihood assets.

Evidence-based insights
Far more needs to be understood about the emerging new roles and impacts of ICTs in poor communities. As few empirical studies have looked specifically at this question, the evidence base remains weak. By placing the spotlight on this area, this the UN-report points to the need for more attention in terms of research and policy analysis to help identify the best ways forward in order to seize maximum development gains from the new ICT landscape.

Wireless is the way forward
Access to most ICTs continues to grow in poor countries, but at very different rates depending on the technology. Growth also varies by region and income level. Access to fixed telephone lines in the poorest countries is extremely low and almost negligible in rural areas. By contrast, mobile access deepens each year as networks extend to more of the formerly unreachable. After a radio or a television set, the next most likely ICT device found in poor households is a mobile phone.

The use of mobile phones to access the Internet is growing rapidly and may eventually become more prevalent in developing countries than in developed countries. In East Africa, for example, Internet access via mobile phones now far exceeds fixed Internet subscriptions. This underscores the potential for mobile phones to transform Internet use in the developing world.

ICT4D15:58, November 23, 2006

The operating system for the OLPC is now available as a virtual appliance that can be used together with the (free) VMWare Player. Instructions are available here at Tom Hoffman’s site.

The $100 Laptop is coming along nicely, and although I’m sure Mr Negroponte would have liked to have a few more units ordered to secure the projects success, it’s starting to look more and more like a finished product.

I have set up a mirror of the appliance to help with the bandwidth (it was very slow when i downloaded it). Download the OLPC from my mirror (In Sweden) from TPB. Or from other servers here or here. The file is 135 Mb in size.

ICT4D02:29, June 8, 2006

India’s Zeenews published an article on the use of cellphones to increase the flow of information and help making business decisions. And not on 5th Avenue in New York, but in rural South Africa. The story is not quite unlike the one I blogged about the other month.

Mashva is one of around 100 farmers in Makuleke testing cell phone technology that gives small rural farmers access to national markets via the Internet, putting them on a footing with bigger players and boosting profits by at least 30 percent. “Mainstream farmers have access to market information so they can negotiate better prices. This cell phone enables poor rural farmers to get that same information,” said Mthobi Tyamzashe […].

ICT4D14:40, April 19, 2006

The United Nations have approved the launch of a Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development. The idea is to find a platform to secure and promote the achievements of some of the Millennium Goals.

The mission of the Global Alliance for ICT and Development will be to facilitate and promote such integration by providing a platform for an open, inclusive, multi-stakeholder cross-sectoral policy dialogue on the role of information and communication technology in development. It will thus contribute to linking the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society with the broader United Nations development agenda.

Press release here.

ICT4D02:05, March 15, 2006

This story about how access to cellphones can make a difference in the real world comes from India. Robert Jensen of Harvard University have studied the Kerala fishermen, and conclude that introducing simple technology can put food on the table for people in rural areas. Narrowing the digital divide – in a very concrete way.

[C]ellphones ended the wastage of 6% of the catch due to a lack of buyers in some markets: the entire catch was sold, and nothing was wasted. […] Even the consumer benefited: fish prices came down because of the increase of 6% in the quantity supplied as the wastage ended. It was a win-win-win situation.

India Times have the whole story.

ICT4D04:33, February 10, 2006

A new book called Wireless Networking in the Developing World – A Practical Guide to Planning and Building Low-Cost Telecommunications Infrastructure, tries to explain exactly what its name implies. Using cheap hardware and existing standards, it is possible to create new networks much more cost-efficiently than with any wired approach, and this publication attempts to explain how and why. The logic is that people in rural areas – in developing countries – can operate and maintain their own network, if given the proper knowledge how these things work. In every village, there are people who can build just about anything – so why not networks?

I am certainly not an engineer and my experience with radio doesn?t stretch beyond flipping the channels on an FM-receiver and some basic high school physics. However, I found the book to be an exiting read. I had no idea you could use cookware and a USB-dongle to make a parabolic dish, or that an empty tin can double as a waveguide. It’s both theoretical and practical in its approach, and explain very well how everything fits together.

The authors are all specialists in their area, and have worked for years with putting these things into practice. Some of the projects are described as case studies in the last chapter of the book.

The whole book can be downloaded under a Creative Commons license.

ICT4D04:49, January 28, 2006

UNDP has decided to back the One Laptop Per Child-project, initiated by Nicolas Negroponte, Routers and AP reports. The United Nations will work together with the non-profit foundation, to help sell the $100 computer to governments.

Also, Lo?c Le Meur posted a podcast with Nicholas Negroponte, from the Economic Forum in Davos.

Intel however, seems not impressed with the initiative, calling the cheap computer merely “a gadget”, since they seem to believe it lacks both capacity and software. Yeah, I bet you’re scared: If people could put such low-spec computer to good use – how can you make people buy faster and faster chips? Besides, it is a learning tool, and it may well be beside the point whether or not it can compete with products costing many, many times the price.

ICT4D16:26, November 21, 2005

MIT Media Lab unveiled a working prototype of the $100 laptop at WSIS in Tunis, last week. The project, as reported before, will bring computing en masse to less developed areas of the world. More information and specs is now also available.

Apparently, Steve Jobs of Apple Computer offered his latest operating system to the project for free, but was turned down by the Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the project, who opted for strictly open-source software.

Pictures from the demo (1 2 3) and press photos.

ICT4D06:08, November 19, 2005

There once was a time when Internet did not come in megabit speeds. In those days, people connected though modems hooked up to noisy analog telephone lines. Just ten years ago, I used a 28k8 baud modem – barely usable with the World Wide Web – but a huge upgrade from my previous 2k4 baud modem I had before. The thing is that I have become so accustomed to speed, that I have (almost) forgotten the chores of optimizing code and images. I have a 100-megabit pipe straight into my living room: over four thousand times faster than my first modem.

A lot can be said about the wonders of video broadcasting on the Internet, but for a majority of the world’s population, data is still transmitted over extremely low bandwidth carriers. (Let me remind you that GSM for example, can only handle 9k6 kbit/s in its original configuration.)

Lately I’ve been experimenting with trying to provide access to content trough narrowband channels, and for clients with a very small (and/or low-res) screen. Luckily, the tools are very easy to use. HTML is very adaptable and works well for most computers, micro-browsers and handhelds, and most mobile phones contain a WAP-browser that handle WML-documents.

Using (slightly modified) plug-ins (wp-mobile.php and wp-wap.php) to my blogging software, enabling access for other terminals proved to be a breeze.

My perspective is simple: By enabling WAP-access, for example, I enable an exchange of ideas with virtually all mobile phones on the planet. Needless to say, there are a lot of people who lack access to computers, but own – and know how to operate – has a cell phone. Isolated, as in this blog, it is irrelevant. No one cares.

But, if we are serious about projects like One Laptop Per Child, we must also be better at enabling content for those without fiber optic Internet connections, or Apple Cinema Displays.

It’s not as sexy as Podcasting. Not as cool as IPTV. But, if it can bring millions of eyeballs – I’m game.

This blog through text only HTML
This blog through WAP

ICT4D16:52, August 13, 2005

At Davos, Switzerland MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte presented the idea of producing a US$100 laptop computer, something he believes will revolutionize the way children are educated. The project – One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) – would market the machines directly to governments who can distribute them much like textbooks. Initial talks have been held with the governments of China and Brazil.

The computer would be based around open-source software, and basically do everything you’d expect from a laptop – but with less storage capacity.

Initially up to 100,000 units would be manufactured, followed by up to a whopping 200 million units by the following year.

One particularly interesting idea is that the laptops would be WiFi-compatible, and although Internet access might be hard to come by in some areas, the computers can form ad-hoc meshed networks and communicate with each other independently of network access.

An important question not yet addressed by Mr Negroponte, is what measures a government like China is likely take in order to limit the uses of the machine. My experience is that would you put this technology in the hands of children, some unexpected things are bound to happen. Any software can be hacked, and if anybody can to it, it’s a million teenagers who just want to have fun. For a recent example of this, see the Kutztown 13.

Update: More information about the project at The Register.

ICT4D04:23, March 24, 2005

Following up my post about The Economists leader about the digital divide the other day, I’d like to point interested parties to the report Completing the Revolution – The Challenge of Rural Telephony in Africa, written by Murali Shanmugavelan and Kitty Wariock and published by Panos.

The guys at WSIS can talk about global internet ad infinitum, but without even basic telephone services these countries will be forever left in the dust.

At present, the lack of rural connections is often hidden behind impressive overall figures for the growth of telephony. Important development initiatives such as NEPAD and the World Summit on the Information Society focus on internet-based ICTs, and where they mention telephony at all it is in general terms.

The report provides both case studies (Uganda, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Zambia) as well as insight into the processes of privatization and deregulation. For example, how countries are interpreting the Universal Service-directive and what methods are used to give access to citizens.

Digital Culture and ICT4D16:55, March 20, 2005

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has submitted a paper to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), where the organization gives its views on why Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology is damaging for developing nations.

The answer to “Which DRM will spur the most development in my nation?” is “None at all.”

One of the more pressing points, I believe, is how DRM prevents resale, or even donation, of used goods – something that is crucial to many economies in developing countries. Maybe it’s not such a great deal if where talking about the latest Britney Spears album – but way more serious when you consider that Adobe’s eBook-system also incorporates DRM-technology.

Then there is a problem with infrastructure, of rather lack thereof. Some DRM-solutions require the client/consumer to be in contact with a central server from time to time. This is of course not pretty difficult in a rural area with little or no internet connectivity.

However, my only complaint is that the EFF report feels somewhat thin. They argue, with their usual precision, against DRM in the developed countries – but fall a bit short in providing specific examples with regards to the developing world. Their main point seem to be it didn’t work here – and it sure won’t work there, an argument that might not convince the sceptics and be heard over the powerful pro-DRM lobby organizations.

ICT4D13:48, March 14, 2005

The Economist devotes one of its leaders to discuss the digital divide and the UN’s creation of a Digital Solidarity Fund. The magazine argues that creation of for example community computer centers, cannot bridge the real divide because the illiteracy rate is too high in many of the affected countries. Instead, they say, the real gap is between those with a cell phone, and those without. And, how to achieve high penetration of mobile phones? Less UN involvement and more liberalization of the market, of course.


ICT4D20:58, November 19, 2004

UNESCO is currently working on the Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Contents and Artistic Expressions, a document originally designed to let individual countries decide on measures to – in a world where media conglomerates expand globally – make certain culture is not reduced to a commodity.

However, due to recent changes to the Convention suggested by “certain countries”, Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) released some opinions of the draft. For example, that the Convention must not be made subordinate to existing or future trade agreements and that it must balance any references to the protection of intellectual property rights with reference to protection of the cultural commons.

CRIS’s suggested changes to the Convention

Free Speech and ICT4D23:57, November 15, 2004

Internews, an international non-profit organization that supports open media worldwide, just released their 2004 Annual Report. Quite an interesting read for anyone interested in efforts to increase participation and enable a public sphere in developing countries.

Considering the recent Afghan election, I think Internews activities in Afghanistan is worthy of special a special mention. Working primarily with the medium of radio (due to a very low literacy rate), Internews is trying to increase political awareness among the citizens, as well as providing other programming. (One of their radio programmes for children Shahrak Atfal, became so popular that a TV-station relayed the audio feed on TV.)