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.
The revelations about sustained and pervasive NSA surveillance that started in June and are still ongoing are having a sustained effect on the global conversation about censorship and surveillance on the Internet. Using 'big data' analysis of public sentiment we can illustrate the change in this conversation. The increase in online posts on the topic important because it indicates that the global conflict over Internet norms is occurring in real-time and is not fading out of the global consciousness or being consumed by a Huxleyan dystopia. If anything, the conversation has increased and has remained significantly higher than it was in the months prior to the first wave of revelations.
Our analysis, using Crimson Hexagon's media monitoring platform, comprised more than 2.5 million online posts from April 6 until October 1 from almost every country in the world. The conversation was and remains dominated by the expected players (largely due to an English language bias or our survey), United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Even though we conducted our survey for English language posts only, the global geographic location of posts accounts for nearly all nations around the world. READ MORE »
Our friends in the Opening Parliament community have been busy this Fall, and are anticipating the Open Government Partnership (OGP) annual conference at the end of the month. We’ve been impressed by several projects that mashup accountability mechanisms with strong data visualizations, and are highlighting them below. For a full review of parliamentary monitoring accomplishments, find more news crossposted on the Opening Parliament blog.
In the Czech Republic, a Czech and Slovak parliamentary monitoring organization, KohoVolit.eu, has worked to visualize complex parliamentary information through social network analysis. Their visualizations demonstrate how often individual MPs sponsor bills and the collaboration relationship with other MPs (image at right).
We work with civil society organizations around the world that are facing increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks against them from relenteless, well-resourced, and tecnically extremely savvy adversaries that attempt to curtail, surveil, and otherwise hinder their work. We are routinely called to assist our partners in preventing and mitigating denial-of-service attacks against and hacking of websites and online services, expecially during political events such as elections. Our partners are under threat in myriad ways, ranging from account compromises, social media takedowns to regime trolls and spammers, and malware.
ACCESS Now, a US-based advocacy organization focused on internet governance and digital security has just compiled the first in a series of reports focused on these threats to civil society organizations. The first assessment focused on fake domains when an adversary creates a similar-looking website or social media profile to one of a civil society organizations. These fake domains are used to dilute or confuse the message of the organization and subvert their effectiveness by drawing readers from the original site, or in order to serve malware to specifically target the audience of the original website. READ MORE »
NDItech was recently at an event on Our Digital Future: Ideas for Internet Research hosted by The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. A diverse panel of experts in the field were invited to the discussion: Matthew Reisman, a Senior Manager at Microsoft, Milton Mueller, Professor at the Syracuse University of Information Studies, Brian Bieron, Senior director with eBay, and Carolina Rossini who serves as Project Director for the Latin American Resource Center.
Panelists made a number of interesting observations about the status and power of the internet in today’s global society. Matthew Reisman pointed out that Microsoft, in particular, is interested in studies of how government regulatory policies are affecting the ability of entrepreneurs to conduct business online - which would be most easily measured by conducting econometric research on internet policies enacted around the world. As trade and services burgeon online, governments are creating barriers that complicate the ease of doing international business. It is important for those researching the modern impact of the internet to consider just how these barriers are affecting businesses, economies, and people, especially in a world where eCommerce has grown to encompass over 6 percent of the global retail sector over a period of ten years. Milton Mueller further asserted that developing an understanding of intimate relations between technology and social relations is essential, including how [we] are going to govern newly implemented technologies, and what the global impact of this governance will be.
The internet is global and as such has particular impact on the economic possibilities for developing countries. We hope to see tangible data from conversations such as this that makes the point wht the internet - in economic and political terms - is a vital resource for countries worldwide.
Over the last 20 years the Internet and globalization have had an impact on the way we as democracy activists think about our work. It has not superseded our fundamental person to person interactions, yet it has provided us and those with whom we work a new toolbox with which to push for improvements in approaches to civic engagement and activism. Yet, even as more than 2.4 billion people around the world push forward into the digital frontier what can we say about the nearly 4.5 billion who are not on the Internet? How do we reach those individuals and get them pulled into an online digital discourse and civil society so their voices can be heard? This post examines the digital divide globally and presents some of the technologies available to bridge the digital divide to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.
The global communications infrastructure is truly in its infancy. The Internet has only been a major force globally for about 20 years. The Internet in its short relevant lifespan connects us in ways we never before thought possible. In the 1970s it was imagined that a computer would one day fit inside a large room, now we carry a computer vastly more powerful than the one that resulted in the successful lunar landings on the moon in our pocket every day. But, while we, in our every day society, carry more and more sophisticated computing devices, we often forget we are among the lucky 1/3 of the planet’s population with access to a treasure trove of information and communications capabilities. READ MORE »
Every year the United States gives out around $50 billion in aid to developing countries around the world. This means the United States gives out twice as much in foreign aid as the next four counties on the list of major international donors (UK, Japan, France, and Germany).
So, where is this money going? The U.S. Department of State and USAID have developed a new tool to help in answering that question. In late 2011 the U.S. signed the International Aid Transparency Initiative, a voluntary multi-national strategy to make information about foreign aid more transparent, accessible, and understandable. Launched in 2013, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Dashboard provides a way to view U.S. foreign assistance funds in a standard, easy to understand, format.
The dashoard enables a wide spectrum of stakeholders in the U.S. aid process to examine, research, and track U.S. funding. It presents data in two ways: First, the website presents data in user friendly graphics in specific categories such as funding received by a particular country, sector, or agency. Information can also be accessed in machine-readable form, allowing users to execute manual queries and download data sets.
Critics of the program note that while the Dashboard is a step forward for transparency, agencies have been lagging in posting information to the Dashboard. They have also noted that data on the Dashboard is not presented in a clear format, or that information is incomplete.
Earlier this month, I sat in an auditorium with political scientists, civic start-ups and data geeks that were prompted to answer the question: Can open data improve democratic governance?
NDI supports projects that deal with opening up government data, particularly in emerging democracies (such as these examples on our sister site Openingparliament.org). We, along with many of our partners engaged in this work, believe that open data can improve governance by facilitating better decision-making and potentially help build trust in and engagement with policy makers. With better information, citizens and governments are also able to ultimately make better decisions.
At the event “Can Open Data Improve Democratic Governance” hosted at U.C. Berkeley, presenters focused on how policymakers can better benefit from data use, i.e. how open data can improve democratic governance. Participants also discussed achievement gaps in order to understand how the open data community should evolve in order to improve governance outcomes.
Officials of national and local governments who are responsible for responding to citizens’ requests for information must be properly organized, trained, funded, and protected.
Because government touches everything, a FOI law should touch everything.
It should be recognized that a FOI law is most important to average citizens at the local government level.
Many FOI laws are based on a presumption of access, stating that government records are accessible with certain exceptions; the exceptions should be based on the likelihood of harm that could arise as a result of disclosure.
The law should not require that government officers, employees, or agencies go to unreasonable lengths to accommodate applicants.
Kenya's iHub recently released its research on crowdsourced information in the highly contested 2013 Kenya Presidential elections. The study sought to clarify the value of information collected from citizens about political incidents from online media, and to answer whether 1) “passive crowdsourcing” is viable in the Kenyan context - passive crowdsourcing being defined as monitoring social media such as Twitter 2) determine what unique information Twitter posts provided about the election, and 3) determine the conditions in which crowdsourced information is a viable news source. As part of the report, iHub provided a useful set of recommendations and a decision-making framework for practitioners who are considering similar methodologies.
The report provides great detail about the research methodology and data sources (Twitter, online traditional media, targeted crowdsourcing platforms like Uchaguzi, and fieldwork). Particularly impressive are the mechanisms described for capture, storage and classification of tweets and the detailed approaches to filtering for newsworthy tweets. The glossary is helpful in clarifying terminology such as that of "passive", "active" and "targeted" crowdsourcing of information from citizens. (NDI prefers the term "citizen reporting" over crowdsourcing for citizen-generated incidents data.) READ MORE »
In an effort to increase transparency and citizen oversight of government spending, a new online project was developed to track government as well as corporate financial transactions throughout the world. Operated by the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN) and funded by organizations such as the Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, Open Society Foundation and 4IP, Openspending.org “maps money” by collecting information about government spending across the globe, and presents results in an accessible and engaging manner.
A community-driven organization, OKFN uses technology to promote open knowledge and data, making it easier for citizens to observe how their taxes are being spent by government. Members of the OKFN’s Openspending.org community work together to build tools and online communities that encourage collaboration in the use and production of digital information. As mentioned on the site, the Openspending.org team is comprised of staff and volunteers who constantly discuss and develop new and innovative ways “to monitor and explain budgets and government spending through the use of technology.”
According to the OKFN team, Openspending came about because, as they note "there is no 'global atlas' of spending, no integrated, searchable database which would be a valuable resource for policy-makers and civil society alike. We want anyone to be able to go to their local council or national government, request the data, upload, understand and visualise it and contribute to this 'spending commons', which anyone can benefit from.” READ MORE »
It goes almost without saying that Twitter has changed the landscape of how people express and exchange their opinions online. Currently Twitter is host to 554.75 million users with an average of 135,000 new users signing up for the service every day. It is estimated that there are 9,000 new tweets every second. What is more, Twitter users have broken the news on events before the mainstream media. The Boston Marathon explosions, key events during the Arab Spring, and the London G20 riots as well as numerous earthquakes and other natural distasters were events where real-time updates were found on Twitter before anywhere else.
Based on this, Researchers at Loughborough University in London have developed a new system for “Extracting the Meaning Of Tears Information in a Visualization of Emotion” aptly adapted into the acronym EMOTIVE. The academics working on this project say this new program can analyze up to 2,000 tweets a second to serve as a map of real-time public sentiment. READ MORE »
Early this summer, the Wall Street Journal published a widely-circulated article on the increasing restrictions to free speech online. South East Asia continues to be a region where internet freedom is under threat.
The most notable case is in Vietnam, where the draconian Decree 72 has been implemented. (More details on other restrictions in Vietnam can be found here). According to the decree, “[A] personal information webpage is a webpage created by individual on their own or via a social network. This page should be used to provide and exchange information of that individual only; it does not represent other individual or organization, and is not allowed to provide compiled information.” This law has severe implications for any journalists, academics, and others who seek to share work accomplished by others. In addition, the decree requires all foreign websites to include at least one server in Vietnam, so that the data stored on those servers can be accessed by local authorities. READ MORE »
I’m recently back from Electech Afghanistan, an NDI-hosted elections and technology conference in Kabul. The event brought together senior officials from government, civil society, the private sector, and the international community to discuss applications of digital technologies to enhance transparency and participation in the election process.
Ahead of the Presidential elections in April 2014, the Afghan public lacks confidence in the government’s ability to run a credible election and this is diminishing participation and prospects for stability and democratic development. Afganistan is, of course, a supremely insecure environment with low rates of literacy throughout the population.
Participants identified ways that technology could improve participation and confidence by helping election authorities in administration, improving how political parties compete, increasing citizen’s participation, and enabling civil society organizations to observe more effectively, all while allowing journalists such as Pajhwok News to publicly share results and analysis. Discussion focused on the changing nature of political participation mediated by technology.
There is a new report by Hibah Hussein, a researcher at the New America Foundation that sharply critiques the lack of privacy and security considerations in mobiles-for-development projects. As readers of this blog know, mobile phones are proliferating as a communications and information delivery channel in international development - in health care projects, those focused on economic development and livelihoods, and also in social accountability and transparency work. We here at NDI have certainly extensively used mobile phones in systematic election monitoring, for citizen outreach and delivering civic information, and for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable.
But, as Hussein poses, mobile phones are inherently insecure channels easily surveilled and monitored by design (after all, telcoms charge by usage and thus watch closely what you do), poorly regulated if at all with meaingful privacy protections in most developing countries, and thus inherently subject to deliberate or inadvertent privacy and security breaches. Since mobile projects in development often target the most vulnerable and marginalized populations and much of development happens in countries with poor governance all the way to outright dictatorships, this combination, Hussein argues, is a recipe for disaster. She notes that international development projects lack privacy and security procols and guidelines and proposes a framework for them to consider in their projects.
I’ve recently been digging into the useful resource Election Passport - it’s a compilation of constituency-level official election results for over 80 countries around the world.
Having this basic information can be a great asset, particularly as we try and find new ways to provide context for citizens by visualizing and mapping electoral environments. One of the best ways to understand a country can be via a classic political red/blue-state style map as has been routine for elections in the United States. I prefer more shades than just red and blue, of course, to show party preference and intensity of that preference, and it’s certainly more complicated to visualize party preference or election results for multi-party democracies. But such historical data can provide useful context for countries where election law violation incidents might be taking place. READ MORE »
Lesley here- travel junkie, steak enthusiast, and hardline supporter of the oxford comma. What brings me to ICT, you ask? Good question.
For the last six years I have devoted myself to the study of international affairs and political science, not an uncommon background for our team here at ICT. I have traveled extensively and lived for prolonged periods of time in Turkey and recently returned to the U.S. from a short stint in Berlin. From these experiences, one thing has become increasingly clear to me: Technology matters. More than that, technology matters to everyone, not just tech devotees and computer scientists. Technology impacts every person, every day, around the world. This is what brings me, a normal everyday tech user, to ICT.
Technology is an ever expanding asset for civil society and democracy development. As I watched my beloved Turkey go through the Gezi Park protests at the end of May, I couldn’t help but wonder at how technology and media impacted what was going on. It wasn’t just the use of social media to coordinate and spread the word about the protests, but also the silencing of media that prevented the rest of the country from knowing what was happening in Gezi Park. READ MORE »
Cyberspace and all communications associated with the Internet was once idealized as a free and open space in which communications could flow back and forth at liberty. This idea has slowly changed in the last 25 years and we are now seeing the Internet and cyberspace as a “Fierce Domain” in which states engage in hostile actions against one another and increasingly against their own citizens. We wondered what normative changes have occurred over the last 15 years in cyberspace and what the implications of this change has been on democrats around the world.
Jeffrey Legro’s definition of norms as “collective understandings of the proper behavior of actors” is helpful to illustrate how norms have evolved in cyberspace. So then, what are the specific norms we would like to see in cyberspace as a democracy support organization? There are currently very clear trends of norms that we wish we didn’t see.
First we see a significant inrease in offensive and defensive state-level cyber capabilities and a growth in state censorship and surveillance. The data globally, as illustrated through sample data taken from censorship monitoring projects such as the Berkman Center’s Herdict Project (Image Right), illustrate an increase in reports of online censorship. Although this data is based on citizen reporting and may not also be state-generated, the enormity of reports of censorship is staggering.
Along with censorship comes its closely related counterpart, surveillance, and the reports of individuals being surveilled in their online activities is only increasing. Furthermore as indicated by experts in tracking censorship and surveillance such as Ronald Deibert at the Munk School of Global Affairs’ CitizenLab surveillance is getting worse. Globally we almost certainly passed the statet when only a few states were using the Internet as a means of censorship and surveillance against their own citizens. States are increasingly socializing, demonstrating, and institutionalizing censoring and surveillance behavior.
What would the world look like if every citizen had access to affordable internet? That’s a question attempting to be solved by internet.org, a joint effort by Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung, that aims to “make internet access available to the two-thirds of the world who are not yet connected, and to bring the same opportunities to everyone that the connected third of the world has today.” READ MORE »
The Washington Post and others have reported extensively on the now declassified secret court opinion from 2011, which claims that the National Security Administration (NSA) has been illegally gathering tens of thousands of electronically-based communications among American citizens for several years now. An internal NSA audit conducted in May 2012 reported 2,776 incidents of unauthorized collection, storage, access to and distribution of legally protected communications from April 2011 to March 2012.
As part of their bulk surveillance program, the NSA has put pressure on numerous companies to release information about their customers. In early August, Lavabit, an email service used by Snowden and approximately 400,000 other people, shuttered its operations after rejecting to comply with a court order to help the US government spy on its clients. Founded in 2004 and owned by Ladar Levison, Lavabit email services used asymmetric encryption to provide a significant level of privacy and security for its users -significant enough that US intelligence agencies could not crack it. Under gag order, Levison was prevented from discussing in detail the reasoning behind his company’s shutdown. On the Lavabit website Levison left a cryptic message for users regarding his decision:
“I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on--the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise.”
The United Nations estimates that more than 2.7 billion people will be online this year. What if there was a way to leverage the power of 2.7 billion people to tell their stories about how they feel about political topics? NDI recently received a grant fromCrimson Hexagonto use theirForSight platformto delve deep into the public Internet to get answers to complex political questions. The platform is based on mathematical algorithms developed by a team of academics at Harvard. As we are rolling out Crimson Hexagon's platform for specific programs we run, we wanted to test it on a topic we are keenly interested in. So, we decided we wanted to know more about what the global discussions are relating to "Technology and Democracy."
Forsight uses a powerful supervised machine learning algorithm developed by Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. It allows users to examine a huge volume of public information on the Internet such as tweets and Weibo posts, public Facebook posts, forums, Youtube, news, blogs, comments, and reviews -- all in nearly real time. Forsight identifies content by keyword associations and users "train" the algorithm by categorizing a small set of the found content into specific categories. Once trained, the platform scans the internet and its historical database for content that is matching the user-defined criteria and categorizes it according to the user’s specific schema. Because Forsight allows users to go back in time it is very useful for learning more about the context of events, or other political and social phenomena, prior to their occurrence.
As sentiment that internet freedom is increasingly being threatened worldwide is on the rise, details on the extent of how censorship is conducted at a technical level is often unavailable. At the USENIX Free and Open Communications on the Internet (FOCI) workshop today in Washington, D.C. two papers provided this information in two countries. The first by Zubair Nabi focused on increases in Internet Censorship efforts in Pakistan, and the second by Simurgh Aryan, Homa Aryan, and J. Alex Halderman examined in detail the rigorous censorship regimes present in Iran. Both papers can be found here and both illustrate a disturbing trend in state repression of information. READ MORE »
Internet freedom has been under threat in Vietnam for some time. The most recent action to repress free speech online is in the form of “Decree 72”, a legislation which requires Internet companies to cooperate with the Vietnamese government to enforce prohibition of: opposing the " the Socialist Republic of Vietnam," undermining "the grand unity of the people", damaging 'the prestige of organizations and the honour and dignity of individuals”, and other ambiguously worded means to express oneself online.
This decree also applies to “organization/individuals inside and outside Vietnam, directly/indirectly involved in managing/providing Internet services and information, and online games, ensuring information safety.” The decree was adopted on July 15th of this year, and will come into force on September 1st. The decree has largely been condemned by human rights organizations and internet industry operating in Vietnam. READ MORE »
Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are an increasingly popular method used against NGO and independent media websites to make them inaccessible during key political moments.
How do they work?
The term DDoS in popular lexicon represents in reality a range of different types of attacks. Largely these attacks deal with the way in which computers and servers handles connection requests. The easiest way to think about DDoS attacks is to imagine your home telephone. If you receive one phone call at a time you can answer, talk, and communicate with ease. If, however, 50, 100, or 1,000 people all called you at the same time not even the best call waiting service would really suffice for your average home telephone. While computers and webservers can handle hundreds and at times even thousands of calls at the same time, they eventually reach a point were they are unable to respond adequately and give a busy signal. This busy signal prevents people from accessing content on your site, system, or online service. READ MORE »
Digital security can be quite challenging for activists working in conflict zones or similarly difficult environments. The SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom has produced the "Journalist Survival Guide", a series of animated videos aiming to provide journalists and citizen journalists operating in dangerous zones with the most essential recommendations on how to protect their physical and online safety.
Our favorite videos include "How to Protect your Computer against Hacking and Malware" ...
...as well as "How to Get a Secure Internet Connection".
Want to see more? All videos as well as accompanying scripts are available in English and Arabic. Enjoy!