Recent news out of Malawi has focused on the President dissolving her cabinet in the wake of arrests of several officials on suspicion of stealing state funds. The “cashgate” corruption scandal highlights the importance of accountability, and suggests an opportunity for citizens to play a key role. In this tense environment, the Malawi Electoral Support Network (MESN) plans to evaluate the conduct of the elections by the Malawi Election Commission (MEC). MESN is a network of civil society organizations working on democratic governance and elections.
An important component of that evaluation is the attention that MESN will pay to data collection and observer management. We’ve discussed many times the importance of high quality data in election monitoring, here.
Successful implementation of a common methodology includes preparing materials, staff, and tools. In order to keep costs low, and quality high, MESN has taken a simple and effective approach to communicating with their observers, and collecting and digitizing their data. Addressing key questions of cost (can users afford to keep the system running?) and capacity (does the organization understand how to administer and fix the system?) MESN is utilizing two tools in tandem: an SMS gateway called Telerivet, and Google Docs.READ MORE »
Last friday I was gatecrashing the Investigative Reporters and Editors Computer-Aided Reporting conference up in Baltimore. Super cool conference; I’ll write it up more generally later. I was asked to share a bit about NDI’s perspective from the field on how we work with political activists and citizen journalists to be aware of the risks they face when using the internet for organizing or communications.
Sometimes in life it’s hard to know what to say (a buddy’s unsuitable engagement, a breakup convo, comments on a friend’s poor artistic performance) and one of them for me are 10-minute digital security discussions. You can’t dive into the details of a complicated tool like GPG. You can scare the pants off of them, but playing dead is not a valid defense mechanism online. So we tag-teamed it. Susan started things off with a quick “how the internet works” - and therefore where you can be attacked - while Jennifer focused on some core software of use in newsrooms like Tor, password managers and Cryptocat.
I decided to take a slightly different tack and talk about really boring stuff. Seems like a presentation winner, right? READ MORE »
Last Tuesday, NDI was lucky enough to hope Anders Pederson to talk about Open Knowledge Foundation’s new project, OpenSpending.org. Understanding how governments spend money is important; It affects the lives of citizens. Governments often claim they spend money “on behalf” of their citizens without any real monitoring of exactly where the money goes once it leaves taxpayer pockets. Perhaps your government announced an increase in spending on education, a position you supported, as part of their election campaign. However, without open and easy access to government spending it is almost impossible to know if that promise was followed through on. READ MORE »
There is no shortage of news about Turkey in the press recently. Between Gezi park protests last summer, and a currently unfolding corruption case, Turkish democracy is a hot topic. Last week Freedom House released a special report on Turkey entitled “Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media, and Power in Turkey” with the central finding being that, “Turkey’s government is improperly using its leverage over media to limit public debate about government actions and punish journalists and media owners who dispute government claims, deepening the country’s political and social polarization.” READ MORE »
What do Chinese citizens think about democracy? Would they support political reform? And what might those reforms look like? To answer these kind questions, political scientists and policymakers have historically turned to polling. But polling is notoriously difficult in China. For one thing, China prohibits foreign polling organizations from directly surveying Chinese people. Alternatively, case studies can offer a valuable approach for gauging public preferences. But with a case studies approach, the sample size is necessarily small, and selecting truly representative cases can be challenging.
Big data analysis can offer another way to understand the public mood. Online social media has given us the largest repository of unsolicited public opinion in history. And Chinese citizens are a big piece of that equation. On Chinese social media, tens of millions of people will write a unique post in a given week.
Last year, a debate about enforcing China’s constitution (read: requiring that Communist Party elites are held accountable to the same legal standards as regular citizens) captured public attention. Using Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight platform, a big data analytics platform developed by the Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences at Harvard University, we mapped the online discussion of constitutionalism for the duration of 2013.
ForSight has access to the full content stream of an enormous quantity of public internet data – including China’s most popular microblogging platform, Sina Weibo. Essentially, ForSight almost instantaneously downloads this data as soon as it is created and stores it. Because the great majority of censorship on Chinese social media is done manually (which takes a few minutes), this store of data also includes censored posts. READ MORE »
How do people under authoritarian regimes become politically aware? Does social media influence political awareness? And does social media really help to undermine authoritarian regimes? These are the questions raised in an article in the British Journal of Political Science. Authors Ora John Reuter and David Szankonyi examine the role of social media and political awareness under authoritarian regimes and provide some fascinating analysis.
The authors led a survey of 1,600 adults conducted following the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections. Their study is particularly interesting because although social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are growing in ubiquity around the world, some non-democratic regimes such as Russia and China have heavily state influenced social media platforms such as vKontakte and Odnoklassniki in Russia.
The authors reviewed the relevant literature across political science on the influence of social media on political awareness, noting an unsurprising muddle of contradictions. Much of the “disharmony” in the literature draws form the inability for any causal relationships between the use of social or “new media” and political change. READ MORE »
As we all know, Twitter is a platform for creating and sharing short bursts of information instantly and without borders. Scholars have taken note and analyze Twitter data to “take the pulse” of society. Since 2010 a number of studies have tried to assess the viability of Twitter as a substitute for traditional electoral prediction methods. They have ranged from theoretical works to data analysis. These studies have been inspired by the lure of access to real-time information and the ease of collecting this data.
In recent study, Daniel Gayo-Avello of the University of Oviedo in Spain examined a number of previous attempts at predicting elections using Twitter data. The author conducted a meta analysis of fifteen prior studies to analyse whether Twitter data can be used to predict election results. He found that the 'presumed predictive power regarding electoral prediction has been somewhat exaggerated: although social media may provide a glimpse on electoral outcomes current research does not provide strong evidence to support it can currently replace traditional polls."READ MORE »
Last week, many of China’s major websites were inaccessible for nearly 24 hours to Chinese internet users. Chinese users trying to reach a range of websites ending in .com were re-routed instead to an IP address owned by Dynamic Internet Technology, which is the provider of the circumvention tool Freegate. DIT has been closely affiliated with the Falun Gong, a religious organization banned in China.
GreatFire.org, which examines Chinese censorship, has a detailed report investigating this outage, illuminating that all attempts within China to visit popular websites such as Sina Weibo, Baidu, etc. would be incorrectly re-routed to 126.96.36.199 (an IP address in Wyoming).
While state news agency Xinhua raised the possibility of hacking, and CNNIC attributed the breakdown to a "root server for top-level domain names", others blame the breakdown on a failure of the Great Firewall. As Chinese internet censorship expert Xiao Qiang states to Reuters, "It all points to the Great Firewall, because that's where it can simultaneously influence DNS resolutions of all the different networks (in China). But how that happened or why that happened we're not sure. It's definitely not the Great Firewall's normal behavior."
Proper implementation of a DNS to match the domain name and the IP address of a website or web service is critical to ensuring that the Internet functions properly. As GreatFire points out, DNS poisoning, or hijacking of DNS routing to send a visitor to an incorrect domain name or IP address, is a technique deployed by the Great Firewall to render ‘blacklist’ websites inaccessible. READ MORE »
It is fascinating to see how the role of social media in political dissent is changing in front of our very eyes, this time in China. Sina Weibo, the wildly popular microblogging platform used by dissidents and activists, might be supplanted by other platforms like Weixin, a more private chat application that now has 270 million active users and is growing rapidly. Weibo, used by influential activists who have large reach to millions of others is also heavily censored and has been reported to have lost users.
Weibo has more than 600 million users, amounting to an astonishing 30% utilization by Internet users in China. There are more than 100 million messages posted on Weibo every day, making the platform a fertile ground for commentary on all matters. As a colleague on our Asia team recently said: "Online social media has given us the largest depository of unsolicited public opinion in human history. Now a report from the China Internet Network Information Center (not an unbiased outfit as it's backed by the Chinese government) reports that Weibo's user base is decreasing.
The report suggests that users are migrating to Weixin instead. Weixin is owned by Tencent Holdings, which, similar to Sino Weibo, also has close ties to the government. According to CNNIC, Weibo users dropped by 9% from a year ago. Meanwhile, Weixin or WeChat as it is known outside of China, added 64.4 million new users last year, especially among the younger demographics.
One reason for the shift may be the changing Chinese consumer behavior that is increasingly migrating from PCs to social networks optimized for smartphones, particularly among young people. Weixin saw a 1,201% increase in usage among youth in the first three quarters of 2013 alone. Under the brand WeChat, the app is also far more global with a userbase of 100 million outside of China.
Ukraine is a beautiful and diverse country that straddles the border between Europe and Asia. From 2005 through 2007 I lived in Eastern Ukraine. During that time I became acutely aware of the importance of mobile technology in everyday life. Landline telephones in the places I lived were rare, and when I wanted to connect to the Internet, make calls, meet up with friends or any number of things I would rely on my mobile phone. Ukraine's mobile pentration is now near 90%, according to recent data, and mobile Internet access is rapidly increasing.
It is therefore not a great surprise that mobile phones have been an integral part of the organization and coordination of protests in Ukraine since the Orange revolution and now during the current Ukrainian Protests that started in late November 2013.
However, this week government manipulation of mobile tech has sent shockwaves across the Internet with a highly documented Orwellian form of tracking of protesters. A text that made its way around my friends and family living in Ukraine and that was widely reported on by international media ominously stated: "You were identified as a participant of in a mass disturbance". It demonstrates a use of technology to tag individuals easily possible but rarely so openly demonstrated.
It makes evident the escalation in the use of technology to curb protests, and marks a dangerous turning point for individuals using mobile phones as a tool for mobilization. Tracking people by location with their mobile phones is not difficult as outlined in this article on Mashable. In this case, there was either a request by the government ffrom the mobile providers for a tower dump (something the providers in Ukraine deny) for cell phone numbers in a certain location that connected to the towers in that area, or a rogue base station set up in the same vincity that essentially 'catches' the relevant information when a phone nearby tries to connect to that rogue tower (which, to a cell phone, looks like any other tower.)
Our last RootsCamp ‘13 round-up identified free tools to maximize voice, and to collect and analyze social and mobile data. Each tool was quite specific in its purpose and execution. Beyond these, the attendees (vendors and activists alike) discussed a broader set of platforms (suites) that attempt to manage people and data in a way that allow for a variety of campaign and advocacy activities including petitions, member engagement, mobilization, etc. As before, find a round-up of the best-of-breed at the conference below. Send any of your own suggestions, and we'll update the list.
NGP VAN is the largest provider of political data management tools for progressives in the US. With it’s recent purchase of NationalField, which builds tools for managing field staff and volunteers, they provide an integrated platform of fundraising, organizing, new media, and social networking products.
NationBuilder is billed as “Political campaign software starting at $19/mo”, NationBuilder has developed an impressive set of online tools for campaigns including websites, voter databases, fundraising tools, and communications tools. Nationbuilder is looking to internationalize its platform. READ MORE »
On December 17, the presidency of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution that creates a permanent Laboratório Ráquer or “Hacker Lab” inside the Chamber — a global first. The full text of the resolution in Portuguese is here. The resolution mandates the creation of a physical space at the Chamber that is “open for access and use by any citizen, especially programmers and software developers, members of parliament and other public workers, where they can utilize public data in a collaborative fashion for actions that enhance citizenship.”
The winner was Meu Congress, a website that allows citizens to track the activities of their elected representatives, and monitor their expenses. Runner-ups included Monitora, Brasil!, an Android application that allows users to track proposed bills, attendance and the Twitter feeds of members; and Deliberatório, an online card game that simulates the deliberation of bills in the Chamber of Deputies.
The hackathon engaged the software developers directly with members and staff of the Chamber of Deputies, including the Chamber’s President, Henrique Eduardo Alves. Hackathon organizer Pedro Markun of Transparencia Hacker made a formal proposal to the President of the Chamber for a permanent outpost, where, as Markun said in an email, “we could hack from inside the leviathan’s belly.” The Chamber’s Director-General has established nine staff positions for the Hacker Lab under the leadership of the Cristiano Ferri Faria, who spoke with me about the new project.
If the NSA revelations by Edward Snowden didn’t impress you and you think, “my country is small and has no desire to surveil me”, or you think, “but I don’t do anything wrong and have nothing to hide,” then this post should serve as a wakeup call to take digital security seriously. Reporters Without Borders has a barometer on its website listing the current status of citizens on the net, and of journalists whom the organization monitors around the world. As of today there are 177 journalists imprisoned worldwide and 166 netizens such as bloggers and people who use Facebook and Twitter for social advoacy.
Digital hygiene is like personal hygiene: once you start doing it it becomes second nature and you’re better off. Bad digital hygiene, like not brushing your teeth, can lead to gunk. Whereas the gunk in your teeth from failing to brush regularly will put you in the dentist’s chair, the gunk from failing to protect your mobile phone or computer could land you in jail and, sometimes worse, compromise the security of friends and colleagues (and sources) around you with whom you communicate. It could be inadvertently opened emails, that link you clicked but that didn’t go anywhere, or my favorite one from a few years back, that Skype pop-up offering to show you naked photos of your co-worker. The Internet is a cesspool of viruses, trojans, backdoors, worms, and more and whether you realize it or not every day you wade through it to get to the content you really want. READ MORE »
Roots Camp 13 is over. This buzzy unconference of field organizers, digital directors, data geeks, and political wonks continues to be an intriguing amalgam of progressive activists growing skills, sharing knowledge, and building networks.
Many fascinating conversations tackled proactive and reactive messaging, mobile advocacy, testing and analytics, data-driven politicking, among others. The tweet stream and archive can be found at #roots13, and here's an initial review by David Weigel on Slate.
Striking the fancy of our @nditech team were the plethora of free online organizing tools that were highlighted throughout the sessions. I’ve posted a round-up of the best-of-breed below. Send any of your own suggestions, and we'll update the list.
Maximizing Your Voice (Message Distribution)READ MORE »
Please join NDI and the OpenGov Hub for a conversation with recipients of NDI's 2013 Democracy Award this Wednesday, December 11 at 12-2 pm in NDI's office in Washington. NDI is honoring this year a stellar group of Civic Innovators from around the world. We wanted to recognize an emerging class of creative and entrepreneurial individuals who are using technology to help advance and improve democracy in the digital age.
We're pleased to feature a number of the award winners in a conversation about the nature of civic innovation and its implications for democracy around the world and hope you can join us! Please register hereREAD MORE »
Data-driven decisionmaking has a lovely alliterative sound. It also makes a lot of sense in the international development world - shouldn’t we have good, solid information to help shape the choice of program activities?
Easier said than done, regrettably. Our team has been mulling about how we can use concepts from randomized control trials - RCTs - to get information on what works and what doesn’t in NDI’s tech4dem work. It is particularly important with new technologies that we’re often pushing because often there’s not enough of a track record for these shiny new tools or approaches to determine if they are effective.
In a a randomized control trial, you need five basic things: READ MORE »
There is an election in a week, you want to poll the citizenry before the election, and your financial resources are limited. What should you do? Should you (A.) Give up because it is simply not possible to get a full-fledged poll out in the field. (B.) Beg your donor to give you a last minute cash infusion to bring on more staff and a polling company. (C.) Join the 21st Century and leverage technology to generate a fully randomized national telephone poll using a platform like Voto Mobile. Voto Mobile's goal is to make interacting with an audience via mobile phones - either one-way via broadcast or two-way in an interactive fashion -- easy and inexpensive.
Over the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to sit down twice with developers and staff from the socially conscious start-up Voto Mobile. Based out of Kumasi, Ghana, Voto Mobile has the straight-forward goal of “Mobile Engagement, Simplified.” The company is leveraging the ubiquity of mobile phones around the world to enable both research and social engagement that offers CSOs, NGOs, Political Parties and other organizations new capabilities. READ MORE »
Auditing of software of both the license and the source code is nothing new, especially of tools that are new to the digital security plethora of tools. But what about software whose use is widely recommended, but where little is known about the licensing decisions and the differences between original code and platform-specific applications? This is the impetus for the audit of the encryption software TrueCrypt.
TrueCrypt allows you to create an encrypted container on your computer's hard drive to store sensitive files, that to the untrained eye, appear like any other file you might find on a user’s computer. TrueCrypt storage “volumes” are typically made to look like a large video file (and hey, we even have a tutorial on how to make one that actually plays part of a video).
Despite being an open-source licensed project, there are legal and technical limitations to its openness.
While TrueCrypt’s source code is publicly available, the binaries (what makes TrueCrypt function without any installation process), are not. This matters because use of these binaries could potentially have security flaws that are unknown and unfixed. As cryptographer Matthew Green points out, the majority of TrueCrypt users only run and install it through the binaries, and while the source code sems trustworthy, it’s unclear if the binaries are. READ MORE »
China leads the way when it comes to controlling online content. A push to counteract messaging that differs from “official” interpretation of events has spurred a wave of crackdowns that started in August, publically justified by the government as preventing the spread of online "rumors”.
Authorities have escalated their campaign against "cybercrime,” designed to prevent “hearsay” and “gossip” from spreading rapidly online, culminating in the arrests of hundreds of activists.
Prominent activist Murong Xuecun in a NYT op-ed stated that, “the vast state censorship apparatus works hard to keep us down. But posts race through Weibo so quickly that it’s difficult to control them with technology. Hence, the government is resorting to detainment.”
Chinese authorities utilize a number of methods for exorcising “bad” speech in its online communities. For over a decade, the government has been employing a task force to publish regime-friendly comments online in an effort to manipulate public opinion. This force has become known as the 50 Cent Army, which pays homage to the rumored 50 cents of Renminbi paid per comment (though in a rare moment of transparency, the government budgets have listed “Internet opinion analysts” as official occupations, most notable at the China Employment Training Technical Instruction Center). In 2012, real name registration came into effect -- requiring web users to register their given name and national identification name with provider sites before posting comments.
The “campaign against cybercrime” has reached new heights in targeting those “perpetrate rumours” in China’s online communities. This provision has paved the way for mass arrests of outspoken netizens across the country, including the Big V’s-- microbloggers known for online activism. An August 24th editorial stated that popular bloggers who “poison the online environment” should be “dealt with like rats scurrying across the street that everyone wants to kill.”
Arrests have also spread amongst China’s Uighur population. July and August were marked by a government movement against “religious extremist content on the internet” in the Xinjiang province. Fearing a militant, religious uprising, police arrested 139 people for spreading “jihadist” sentiments and posting religious content online, according to state-run media.
We often take for granted the impact technology has on our everyday lives. I was poignantly reminded of the importance of technology a week ago when I used my smartphone and the Internet to diagnose the warning signs of appendicitis. Having had the last few days at home after surgery, I began to ponder several important aspects of technology. Critics often scoff at the importance of technology in development saying that technology has a limited role if any. I do not claim that technology is the silver bullet, yet my own immediate experience indicates that technology has an important role to play in both general human development activities and also more pertinently to our own work in democracy and civil society development. READ MORE »
I thought it was a brand of athletic shoes, but apparently I was wrong.
I was recently at a training-of-trainers with some of the best digital security experts in the business. We’re working with a crop of young trainers from around the world eager to improve their skills in teaching others the critical - and timely - topics of safety and privacy online.
We’re not children anymore. (I, at least, am nowhere close.) That means, in part, that we don’t learn in the same way that children do - and a lot of the teaching methodologies we’re brought up on don’t work well for adults. We are building out a set of digital security training materials and in the process I’ve been learning about a pedagogical approach called ADIDS. I’ve also been learning how to pronounce “pedagogical.”
ADIDS stands for Activity, Discussion, Inputs, Deepening, Synthesis. It’s a proven approach based on experimental results and sound learning principles - and entirely new to me. This may explain much of my academic career. In any case, by taking a topic and approaching it through these five lenses, one gives a broad audience of adult learners the best chance possible to absorb new, complex information.
People don’t learn everything all at once. It’s a frequent sin in digital security trainings to blast through a complicated topic, say “any questions?,” nod in satisfaction, and move on confident that the information has been absorbed and will be faithfully lived from that day forward.
Enter the Open Government Guide. It is meant to support the development and then adherence to specific goals in 19 areas currently. These include, for instance, budgets, public contracting, right to information and cross-cutting issues such as parliaments and elections (Disclosure: both of those chapters were contributed by NDI staff.). Each category is divided into initial, intermediate and advanced actions that are also supported by specific recommendations, standards, and case studies. All is presented in a highly accessible visual format. READ MORE »
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in an event to determine how human rights defenders might approach an emergency alert mobile app given their diverse risks, and to ensure that activists first consider their risks before adopting such a tool.
The following is a summary of this event, written by Alix Dunn of the Engine Room and Libby Powell of Radar.
How can an app developer make sure that an app doesn’t do more harm than good? For Amnesty International, that question could be one of life or death for human rights defenders using their new Panic Button app. READ MORE »
One of the key components to any well run organization is an efficient process for information gathering. This can seem a daunting task for professionals working from differing locations or even transnationally. Traditionally, organizations have relied on paper forms for collecting data only to later gather the forms and enter them manually into a database for analysis. Using web-based forms allows for real-time monitoring and analysis of data. Mobile collection of data also offers the ability to collect advanced data such as GPS coordinates, images, videos, and time stamp data - all on the go and in the field.
The best part of using mobile-forms is that you don’t have to be a programmer or statistician to utilize them. Building web-forms is a fast, uncomplicated task that can be executed by even the least tech-savvy individuals. In order to prove this, over the last week I have been working with two tools that are increasingly popular for mobile data collection: Formhub and Open Data Kit (ODK). Below is an easy 5-step breakdown for using Formhub and ODK Collect to enhance your data collection process.
We talk repeatedly about transparency and civic engagement in our work, and often emphasize that it’s only when governments have the will and capacity to respond to citizen' demands that signficant social change takes place. Improving citizen action and government responsiveness always lies at the nexus of political institutions, local incentives, and power dynamics. Add to this the use of digital technoloy - ubiquitously by citizens, less so by institutions, and you see the need for very smart project design that takes all these factors into consideration. However, projects are often influenced by donors who not always understand how these systems work together. In a positive sign, a new funding mechanism requires strategic design and evidence of government and civil society collaboration up front.