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Social Media and Governance: Two different debates?

Last week I was at the Wilton Park Media, Social Media and Governance conference. It was a really good opportunity to hear presentations from a great number of really interesting people.

Things I liked:

  • Charlie Becketts presentation (here) on the future of journalism was stimulating. To my mind connected with the ideas of ‘networked public spheres’ that
  • Transparency and Accountability Initiative: their recent report on technology in transparency and accountability work provides a useful overview, and a helpful typology of efforts in this area (‘pull’ efforts that help citizens access data and ‘push’ efforts that promote citizen voice).
  • Global Voices: Always striking, Solana Larsen‘s presentation on the people behind the blogs was powerful because we heard real people’s voices (see below).

The  debate that stayed with me after the conference:

There were so many interesting discussions and debate, but there seemed to be one that didn’t really happen. It was almost as if there were two separate discussions happening at the same time – the impact of new communications technologies on communications for development and the impact that new technologies have on what people choose to do.

Communications for Development (C4D) focusses on planned uses of the media to achieve specific, and measurable, changes. To me the most interesting examples of this at the conference were the uses of new technologies in governance initiatives profiled by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative. There were examples of using technology  to map information, provide citizen feedback and hold government to account. But nearly  all were examples of projects – mostly projects dependent on aid for their operation and for the definition of their purpose.

The other debate focusses on the impact that new communications technologies have on the information ‘ecosphere’. What happens when information flows through social networks faster than ever before? Google’s Sarah Painter talked about her work, emphasising the importance of maintaining an open and accessible internet (no doubt referencing both the ‘walled garden’ phenomenon of non-searchable/linkable sites like Facebook  and the rise of internet apps) for citizens and activists. Solana also showcased the work of bloggers and tweeters such as  sillybahraini girl and Amira al Hussaini. And although the conference was conceived of over two years ago, long before the Arab Spring blossomed, it was the role of new technologies in social uprisings that somehow didnt feel really addressed – or rather what the implications of new communications technologies were for spontaneous civic action, or to put yet another way, to respond to the question of when the way people communicate changes what, if anything, changes?

Whilst I think the hyperbole of technologies’ role in causing the Arab Spring uprisings is clearly misplaced (see Shirky et al, who’s position has been somewhat painted into a straw man), its worth asking when social structures and the flow of information and communication changes, does anything else change? Zeynap Tufekci’s work on the sociology of technology has some interesting ideas, particularly her post Faster is Different – where, referencing network theory and epidemiological mapping, she argues that the many to many communication characteristics enable populations to outmanoeuvre the traditional ‘whack-a protest’ response.

Im also really interested in the infrastructure that these technologies and communication processes rest on. The internet service providers and particularly the mobile network operators play a crucial role in enabling networked communications. Of course, mobile phone operators are first and foremost businesses, and face political pressures (to accomodate monitoring, shut down networks, filter key words etc). Within those constraints, what might operators do that would further enable the free flow of information? And what might the international community do to support, or pressure, the operators to maintain that open flow?

Could Vodaphone, Bharti, or Telenor be the next Nestle and open access to communications the next babymilk?

Although I know that the GSMA is engaged in discussions on these issues, it was a shame that they weren’t at the conference.


Getting the balance right in mobiles for development

Ken Banks of and FrontlineSMS recently asked whether development projects using mobile technologies should be led by mobile technology experts or by development practitioners – Who’s best placed to run a successful “m4d” project – the m‘s or thed‘s?”.

This question has been sitting at the back of my mind over the last week as Ive been working with Panos and D-Net in Dhaka, developing an assessment and design tool to help people figure out how mobile phones can help development projects.

The idea behind the tool was to respond to issue underlying Kens question. In our experience too often development practitioners recognise that mobile technologies could help their programmes, but they dont have the technical expertise. Similarly, well meaning technologists often get frustrated because they dont have a clear sense of what the problem is, and we have all seen sophisticated solutions that don’t receive rapturous reception from development practitioners – leading to wasted efforts. As a result technologists feel frustrated by the lack of interest from the development community in new ways of approaching old problems.

So how to realise the potential that mobile technologies have for addressing intractable development problems? What came through so strongly in Dhaka was that ideas flowed best when both development practitioners and mobile technologists worked together. The trick was to recognise that both had different but equally important roles. Wayan’s Venn diagram outlines this well, showing how the two sectors can find common ground:

The different worlds of mobile, ICT and Development

The role of the development specialist was to identify and keep focus on what the problem was, and what needed to change (and the tool we developed specifically identifies needs in a way that technology and communication specialists can engage with). It was also very helpful to give the technologists ideas a reality check and stress test their practicality.

It was an incredibly rich experience, with mutual learning and collaborative design at the heart of the process. Key to its success was technologists respect for the insights of the development specialists, and to recognise that they knew best what would work in a specific context. On the development practitioners side, being open minded to new ideas and tools was critical to fruitful discussion.

And at the end of it came a really simple yet potentially effective way of addressing a chronic problem in Bangladesh’s health care sector (which Ill share in detail once its up and running!

Mobile in East Africa

An interesting study on mobile applications in East Africa. It looks at whats limiting applications fully taking off, with conclusions aimed at recommendations for donors. Mobile Active notes:

While mobile phones are the main channel for information in East Africa, with mobile penetration covering over 40% of the population, sustainable, scalable mobile services for social and economic development are limited. The report is supported by secondary data, statistics, and field work carried out in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, along with numerous interviews, meetings and discussions with key stakeholders in EastAfrica. Major trends in mobile usage, barriers for increased use of m-applications, as well as opportunities for scaling are discussed.

Perhaps one of the most interesting innovations it reveals is how the Kenyan M-PESA money sending service M-PESA is being used to send money (in the form of airtime credit) between Kenya and Uganda. A Kenyan Safaricom sim card automatically roams on the Ugandan UTL network, allowing the transfer of credit between the two. Mr Michael Joseph, the Safaricom Chief Executive Officer, later commented the operation: “M-Pesa does not officially operate there [in Uganda]. We are investigating. It’s quite strange” (Telecom Africa 2009).

What does this mean for future remittance activities? Will expanding roaming agreements mean migrant workers can send home remittances cheaper than Western Union, and more directly than the Hawala network?

They also outline examples of mobiles for governance (without defining what they mean by governance). The report outlines aspirational examples of what mobiles could do to strengthen accountability, transparency (presumably with the aim of increasing more responsive political system). It goes on to give examples of how mobiles have supported service delivery such as water, electricity and basic health services.

For me, good governance is politicians and civil servants responding the needs and demands of their electorate. Driving this has to be the political will amongst both to recognise that their constituents needs come first – and not serving their political masters further up the chain as is so often the case.

The report is available here (pdf).

The mobile as printing press, but disrupting what?

In a stimulating lunch with Jon Gosier (dont believe his claims to be merely a techie – he’s a true social entrepeneur and a seeder of thoughts) I said it seemed like the mobile phone was the printing press of our time, disrupting existing systems. He said he saw the biggest disruption taking place in the banking sector (his eloquent post on that’s here).

The question that really stayed with me is what that means for people making that shift. What does it mean to choose a technology based financial system, as opposed to traditional, social based systems? What impact does it have on families, communities where financial transaction have been informal, and often ‘public’? Consider the following:

Migrant workers send $414 billion annually (with an additional 30-40% through informal channels) to their families every year. A common form is the hawalla system, an informal network of brokers who transfer money based on trust, the promise of reimbursement and direct to recipient transactions.

The interesting point for me is that the final receipt of cash is a fairly public transaction – the family and often community would know when the money had arrived, and often how much. And with that knowledge comes expectations about how that money is spent, expectations that must be met to retain ones social position.

Now if the remittance takes place through a mobile phone – either through transfer of mobile credit, through bank linked transfers or Western Union – the cash arrives on your phone. Only the recipient (and sender) knows, and suddenly there are a new set of choices about what to do with the money, choices that were previously unavailable.

What does that mean for communities defined by informal links? Do savings increase? Do relationships to other powerholders (landowners, rent-seekers and other forms of corruption) change?

Do mobile phone based financial transactions strengthen individual choice making? What might costs of that increased choice be? What value do those same informal networks hold that might make that choice to send money through a phone less appealing?

What was the cost to communities of giving up the Church as the gatekeeper of knowledge?

When enemies speak

Its a bit off topic from the focus of this blog, but the dialogue between Abu Walid al-Masri and Charles Cameron, is fascinating (Abu Walid al-Masri is a senior Arab Afghan adviser to al Qaeda and the Taliban) . Abu Walid al-Masri’s response makes much of the notion of chivalry:

I am reminded of Richard the Lionheart, who came to lead a big crusade to capture Jerusalem from Muslim hands. The bloody wars he led brought fatigue to everyone and benefited neither the religious or nor the day-to-day interests of either party. Leading the Muslim campaign was Sultan Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin), King Richard’s peer in courage, chivalry and wisdom.

Both parties finally agreed that Jerusalem should remain in Muslim hands — hands which would guarantee its security and that of its people, and of both the Islamic and Christian sanctuaries, preserving their interests and protecting the sanctuaries of all, in peace.

Thereafter, King Richard retreated from Muslim lands, carrying with him a most favorable impression of the Muslims and of Saladin as he returned to his own country, while leaving a continuing memory of respect and appreciation for himself and his chivalry with Saladin and the Muslims — which is preserved in our history books down to the present day

SMS Newspapers

MobileActive has a good piece on  how the Namibian, an independent newspaper with 27,000 sales a day, launched SMS pages – pages in the newspaper dedicated to printing submitted messages.

MobileActive notes that the SMS program originally started as a way for readers to respond to a small number of articles – the editors placed a mobile phone logo beneath certain stories in the paper and invited readers to text in their responses to it. The program grew so popular that the paper now dedicates two pages of the paper three times a week and a section of their website to publishing SMS responses. The messages cover everything from direct responses to articles to more general quality-of-life comments.

Carmen Honey, sub-editor for the Namibian sums up the goal of the SMS Pages as: “To give as many readers as possible, whoever and wherever they are, a chance to take part in the democratic process by sharing their views at the lowest possible cost.”

As mobile phone penetration expands, traditional media will increasingly find convergence opportunities with new media. Radio stations running call-in programmes, newspapers printing SMS messages. What other examples of convergence will emerge?

TED in Pakistan

Ali Kapadia’s winning TED video

On Friday June 4th, TED came to Karachi, Pakistan. TED, short for Technology, Entertainment and Designis a global series of talks for “ideas worth spreading,” These bring incredible diverse people and ideas together. Past TED speakers include Al Gore as well as  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – which gives you an idea of the magnitude and scale of the conference.

Faisal Kapadia has a great writeup of the event here.

The ethos of TED is one particularly suited to Pakistan, in my experience one of the most innovative and creative countries. Its fitting that TED speaks to new, and especially technologically, innovative ideas in a country where mobile phone usage is estimate to top 130 million by 2014, and 100 million of its 170 million population are under 25 years old. Harnessing those technological advances and youthful creativity is exactly what Pakistan needs.