Tag Archives: social media

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).

Echoes in the Public Sphere

The new ‘social’ communication of facebook, twitter and SMS social networks have been heralded as the new dawn of a global public, a market square of ideas in which all could participate. To listen to some, it seems to promise all the failed efforts of the 70’s to bring about ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ in which the voices of the unheard could speak with the many. But is this really true?

When Marshall McLuhan coined the term the ‘global village’ he imagine a world where everyone communicated, with everyone. Clay Shirky’s book ‘Here Comes Everyone‘ updates that vision for the modern internet age, painting a picture of global collaboration, protest (eg against the Catholic Church) and coordination. Indeed, in his second book Cognitive Surplus he suggests that the global attention of the always connected could yield a trillion hours of productive engagement.

But recent trends suggest that while increasing numbers may be connecting, this isnt quite the great global conversation we might imagined, nor is it leading to the revolution we might have imagined. Indeed, many of the examples of new media ‘revolutions’ are not all that they seem:

  • From Foreign Policy Magazine: But it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told theWashington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil. “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz,” he said. “But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.”
  • From International Herald Tribune: My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change. We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

Clearly, there are many examples – from the Phillipines, Kenya, and of course Barack Obama’s election – where cellphones have been used to unite people with similar views in ways previously unimaginable. But thats the point. These are people who already care about corruption. In fact, though everybody may be connecting, we’re actually having the same conversation, only magnified. Our views arent being challenged and perspectives only reinforced. Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent TED talk demonstrates how narrow our world view is, pointing to arresting graphics of global TV content – and how its dominated by coverage of the US, a little of the UK and the broader ‘Western world’. Other continents are mere mentions, usually only when wars are fought. And the voices of the unheard are heard by only a very very few. Its worth watching in full:

This means that our world view, and perspectives on our global village, remain limited. Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge and Obama’s internet czar, writes in his book On Rumours how the dominance on the internet of social networking and blogging creates what he terms ‘ an echo chamber’ of ideas, where prejudices are exacerbated, to the extent, he argues in the Telegraph, that ‘if you want to be an extremist, hang out with people you already agree with’.

The point is that for most, the new media isnt bringing about a more vibrant public sphere. A healthy public sphere, as outlined by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, is a free market place of ideas to be freely debated by people prepared to change their point of view. In this public sphere extreme perspectives would be perceived for what they are – extreme and certainly not the norm.

Instead our ‘imagined community‘ shaped by television, the internet and SMS serves up what we choose, and in the main we tend to choose information that confirms what we already thought, and reinforces our prejudices through connecting us to people who share the same prejudices. The new public sphere seems increasinly not a market place of ideas but a series of ghetto’s in which reveberating opinions are reinforced, driving out the possibility of change.

Our task must be, as Zuckerman outlines in his talk and the Global Voices initiative, to bring the voices of the unheard into ghetto’s and help the echoes reverberate in new spheres.

Opinion Space – first step towards global dialogue

In March the US State Department launched Opinion Space a fascinating new web based tool to, in their own words, ‘foster online open dialogue’. Below is AYM2011 from Afghanistan’s comment:


It allows you to position yourself through a series of questions on a social graph and compare yourself to others. The questions are faily basic, but broad:

Its great that you can see others comments, and rate them in terms of how much you agree with them. But Id like to see:

  • comments by geography. It would be interesting to be able to engage with peoples perspectives from specific countries.
  • responses to questions put to SoS Clinton. It doesnt feel very interactive at present.
  • ability to comment directly in response to other comments.
  • facility to propose new questions
  • a broader set of activities around the whole initiative. TV programmes, blogs, etc.

How could this be used beyond its webplatform, and to open it up to broader participation? Well, Id like to see this being reflected in a TV programme, broadcast simultaneously on US and a foreign TV channel – eg Pakistan. Questions could be asked , responses sent by text message, and the answers graphed on the webplatform and broadcast on television. The responses could be debated by a studio panel, commentators or even government representatives.

How else can data representation like this be used to promote peace and diplomacy? How can the data be used in interactive ways?