Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. ~ Margaret Mead
For the last week I have been holed up with approximately 60 computer scientists, activists, and social scientists from around the world at the Connaught Summer Institute hosted by CitizenLab at the University of Toronto. The individuals gathered here are some of the top minds in monitoring internet openness and rights. For the last 5 days, each of us has either presented a paper, case studies, or posters on issues most people never think about, but should.
We have engaged one another in a cross-disciplinary give and take. The problem this institute seeks to address, as identified by the CitizenLab, is a lack of dialogue occurring between academic disciplines and with academia and activists on the ground. The entire goal, as it has become apparent, is to begin the process of blurring the boundaries between the disciplines and with activists. READ MORE »
Please join us on Tuesday, July 23 from 5-7 for talk and conversation with Nicco Mele book talk, he will discuss The End of Big: How The Internet Makes David The New Goliath, published recently. In it, he explores the consequences of living in a socially-connected society, drawing upon his years of experience as an innovator in politics and technology. He argues that "Radical connectivity—our breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly, and globally —is in the process of re-shaping our biggest institutions." Please RSVP here.
Where? National Democratic Institute (NDI) , 455 Masachusetts Avenue, NW, 8th floor, Washington, DC 20001
When? Tuesday, July 23; 5 - 7 pm. Refreshments provided.
My eighth grade math teacher was a stale, unpleasant, rather portly old man who obviously hated teaching. He had the notion that the best way for his students to learn was to assign us scores of repetitious problems in the form of “find x” without explaining to us what we were actually doing. One night as I drearily plugged quadratic formula after quadratic formula into my graphing calculator it dawned on me that there had to be some shortcut for the work. I looked up “how to program a calculator” on Google and that evening I completely fell in love with programming. It wasn’t before long that I’d put my old TI-83 calculator behind me and was spending most of my free time building web pages and exploring the magical worlds of Java, C++, and Python.
I arrived at Stanford having every intention of majoring in computer science and eventually joining Google or a startup or fulfilling some other Silicon Valley cliche. READ MORE »
While news of NSA and GCHQ surveillance continues to dominate the news, there are plenty of other countries that use legal and judicial means to justify online censorship and surveillance. Internet freedom is backsliding in these countries: READ MORE »
The recent revelations about large-scale NSA surveillance point to a pervasive problem facing democracy and human rights activists around the world. They face intense surveillance on a daily basis for working for universally accepted human rights and democratic and accountable governance. Those who thought of the internet as a space for free expression and a place where ideas are able to transit the globe unencumbered by now have realized that the reality of the Internet is not too dissimilar from that of the physical world. The great public square that is the internet is closely watched and increasingly controlled by governments and their spies. We wonder increasingly: How can democracy and human rights activists still use this space to continue the good fight? What are the implications for democracy and human rights activists following the revelations of surveillance programs such as Prism and large-scale meta data dragnets? Are we becoming fast the cyberlosers as the world is moving towards compromised internet governance, national internets, and pervasive surveillance?
The bottom line is this: The online public square is depply compromised. Of course, this surely is not a great surprise. READ MORE »
It is no secret that the number of people using mobile phones has exploded in the last ten years. In 2002, for example, there were 49 million mobile phones in Africa; today there are more than 700 million. Mobile technology has revolutionized the way people communicate and connect to social, economic and political resources. And while there is still a considerable gender gap with regard to mobile phone ownership and usage throughout the developing world, more and more women are now using mobile phones to access social services and new economic opportunities.
Recently, USAID released a report that supports the fact that even in hard-to reach places with strict societal norms for women, mobile phones have an impact. The Afghan Women’s Capacity Building Organization conducted a survey of 2,000 women from five major provinces to determine their access to mobile technology in Afghanistan. In the report, USAID presented some key positive findings:
As of late 2012, 80% of Afghan women surveyed have regular or occasional access to mobile phones.
Access to mobile phones is growing quickly, especially among young women.
44% of women who live outside of urban areas own their own phones; 39% have access to a family member’s phone.
Mobile phones are becoming gateways to social and commercial services, including those related to health and education.
A majority of women surveyed believe that “connectivity enhances Afghan women’s lives, making them feel safer, better equipped to cope with emergencies, more independent, and more able to access the family members and friends who comprise their networks.”
A majority of women surveyed believe that mobile phones are essential tools.
The cell phone represents the most radical transformation in communication technology for the masses since... well, who knows when. Mobiles are a BFD, and they’re everywhere. However, I’m sometimes surprised that international development professionals designing program plans don’t always recognize this new world. Based on the lived realities of citizens in their target countries, proposals for future work should always use current communication tools in their plans of reaching and working with their intended audiences.
If your Twitter client didn't explode with the news about PRISM, here are the highlights, courtesy of the Washington Post:
An internal presentation on the Silicon Valley operation, intended for senior analysts in the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Directorate, described the new tool as the most prolific contributor to the President’s Daily Brief, which cited PRISM data in 1,477 articles last year. According to the briefing slides, obtained by The Washington Post, “NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM” as its leading source of raw material, accounting for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports.
The technology companies, which participate knowingly in PRISM operations, include most of the dominant global players of Silicon Valley. They are listed on a roster that bears their logos in order of entry into the program: “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” PalTalk, although much smaller, has hosted significant traffic during the Arab Spring and in the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Dropbox, the cloud storage and synchronization service, is described as “coming soon.”READ MORE »
On June 14, Iranians will head to the polls to cast their vote for the country’s next president. With a slew of candidates and a volatile political climate, social media is abuzz in the country. To track the trends of online conversation surrounding the elections, analysts at Small Media – a UK-based organization focused on technology research – have developed an Election Monitoring Series to explore social media for Iranian perspectives.
The second report in the series draws on data from Twitter, Facebook, and other sources collected between May 22 and May 27, following the candidates’ announcement on May 21 and leading up to the debate on May 31. In total, researchers found 14,464 tweets including the names of the eight Iranian presidential candidates. The most tweeted candidate, garnering 5,897 (40%) of the mentions, was Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator who is said to be very close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomenei. Following Jalili with 2,117 mentions was Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council who is closely affiliated with the news website Tabnak and focuses on economic issues. Hassan Rowhani, a Muslim cleric with centrist views and close ties to Iran’s ruling clerics, received 1,638 mentions, followed closely by Mohammad Gharazi and Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf. READ MORE »
The protests that began last week in Istanbul’s Taksim Square have spread throughout Turkey, gripping the country’s politics and garnering international attention. With the excessive force used by the Turkish police against protestors, what began as a small sit-in against the government’s plan to demolish Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park has become a large-scale anti-government protest movement spanning over 60 cities. Amid this widespread unrest, social media has become a battleground.
Since the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street demonstrated to the world that a new generation of popular movements had emerged, social media has become a focal point for organizing, supporting, and responding to popular movements. In Turkey, the role of social media has become paramount, particularly in the absence of traditional media coverage of the movement. READ MORE »
Crossing borders with sensitive information can be difficult in areas where information is tightly controlled. We have been playing around with ways to encrypt information and hide it in other content - a form of encrypted steganography. So we tried to encrypt data with Truecrypt, an open source file encryption software, and hide it in a movie file.
Ordinarily, anyone trying to open an encrypted Truecrypt volume found on a computer or thumb drive would receive an error message, making the encrypted files obvious. It just screams that there is something out of the ordinary on a USB thumb drive, SD Card or computer.
We wanted to create a secure volume that fits inside of a video that actually plays -- such as a downloaded YouTube video of cats or family video in mp4 format. Within that video is a hidden TrueCrypt volume.
Below is a step-by-step guide to hiding a TrueCrypt Volume inside of a video. Please be aware that there may be anti-encryption laws in your country, so please educate yourself on local law before proceeding.
The New Organizing Institute (NOI) is a community of organizers dedicated to supporting the organizing efforts of citizens by training organizers to build and manage effective movements. The NOI’s online Organizer’s Toolbox provides the basic tools, technologies, and strategies to help community organizers to build movements and achieve real change. According to the NOI's mission statement:
If people have the tools to engage others, the tools to build powerful campaigns, and a community of practice to help them learn and grow, they can win real change, make measurable improvements in people’s lives, and restore faith in our government and our democracy.
This is true not only for community organizing efforts in the U.S., where the NOI is focused, but also international efforts such as those supported by NDI and its partners. The toolbox hosts ten Resource Centers that support various aspects of campaign organization, including online organizing, organization and leadership, data management, voter registration and Get Out the Vote (GOTV) initiatives. From tips on public speaking to registering voters to engaging online, the toolbox covers a variety of the elements essential to community organizing. It also contains a module designed specifically for campaign trainers, which can support programs that include a training-of-trainers component.
Photo credit: New Organizing Institute
Here at NDItech, we are always on the lookout for relevant resources that can support the efforts of NDI and its partners in the field. This online Toolbox is an excellent public resource for organizations that support movements worldwide to develop their message, engage effectively, and affect real change in their societies. By sharing past experiences, best practices, and key tactics and tools, resources such as this online toolbox can support effective community organizing and democracy-building efforts around the world.
WhatsApp has become a very popular (read: FREE) alternative to traditional text messaging. Over the past few years, many smartphone users have shifted from using BlackBerry Messenger and other instant messaging apps to WhatsApp. This is especially true for activists in much of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.
The growing popularity is understandable considering that this cross-platform instant messaging application for smartphones only costs $0.99 for iPhone users and nothing for other platforms. With more than 200 million active users monthly, WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum boasted that “We’re bigger than Twitter today,” at a conference in April. According to company statistics, WhatsApp users are quite active - sending 12 billion and receiving 8 billion messages per day.
With WhatsApp you can send free messages to friends, family, colleagues, etc. anywhere in the world. In addition to messaging, you can create groups and exchange an unlimited number of images, video and audio media messages. Sounds pretty great, right? READ MORE »
Over the past several years, a significant body of research has examined how communication technologies are transforming social, political, and economic dynamics in societies around the world. Much of this work has observed the positive effects of these technologies on improving civic engagement, increasing transparency, supporting free and fair elections, fostering economic development, and preventing violent conflict. We at NDI have developed numerous programs using communication technologies to improve democracy and good governance across borders and issue areas.
The authors Jan H. Pierskalla and Florian M. Hollenbach chart new territory for this research in exploring the relationship between the expansion of cell phone coverage in Africa and higher levels of political violence. They write,
We contend that, in contrast to mass media, access to individual communication technology like cell phones can undermine the effects of government propaganda and, more importantly, play an integral part in overcoming other specific collective action and coordination problems inherent in insurgent violence.
According to the authors’ analysis, when cell phone coverage is present, the probability of conflict occurrence rises significantly. As they argue, private communication technologies such as cell phones can play an integral role in overcoming collective action and coordination problems inherent in insurgent violence. In Africa, the benefits of improved communication technologies are particularly substantial for insurgent groups. The cheap availability of cell phones improves and increases communication among group members and allows for the tightening of networks. These improvements are crucial for insurgents who are often spread out across vast geographical distances and who need an efficient means to coordinate actions and gather material support. The authors hypothesize that enhanced communication facilitates in-group trust and information sharing, which are key to collective action.
Enter Snapchat, an app available on iOS and Android that allows users to take a photo, send it to a friend, and is deleted after 10 seconds. (It's so easy, even Stephen Colbert can do it). Sounds pretty great, right?
Snapchat photos appear to live "beyond the grave" in the memory of smartphones (perhaps making the Ghost logo all the more appropriate).
Decipher Forensics recently investigated if Snapchat photos actually are deleted, or if the image and any associated metadata with such photos can be recovered. Report author used two Android devices to send and receive Snapchat photos, and found that: READ MORE »
Facebook recently added a new feature that will send a password reset command to a set of pre-determined 'trusted friends." This feature is coming in handy already in closed societies and countries where activists under threat of arrest and facebook hacks. The feature allows a Facebook user to pre-determine a set of "trusted contacts" in the security settings. Once trusted contacts are set up, if a user has trouble accessing her account (such as in case of arrest or hack), she can call on these trusted contacts and receive a security code from them to regain access to the account. A user would need three security codes from trusted friends to regain access to the account which would, in theory, minimize any threats to those trusted friends by adversaries.
Exciting news from the Ushahidi team - the new version of Crowdmap, a hosted crowdsourcing platform that allows users to share thoughts, photos, and videos with the world, was released this week in a public beta. Crowdmap 2.0 is a newer, more social version of the platform originally designed to provide a simple, hosted collaborative mapping system
At NDITech, we are always looking for new ways technology can be used as a medium for purposes of communication, participation, crisis management, and civic engagement so as soon as our beta access arrived we dove in to take a look. READ MORE »
In Georgia, presidential elections are set to take place this October, generating new interest in the country’s changing political landscape. NDItech has been engaged with our local partners in using tech to systematically monitor the election there. This will be the sixth presidential election in the country since the country’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and comes at a key time in the nation’s politics. The elections will take place one year after President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party was defeated in the parliamentary elections by the Georgian Dream party led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, who became the new prime minister. This defeat represented a significant blow to President Saakashvili, who led the country’s pro-Western Rose Revolution in 2003. A poll conducted by NDI provides some interesting insights into the nature of political opinions among Georgians. NDI conducts public opinion polling in numerous countries on political issues as part of our work. READ MORE »
We know that corruption grows and spreads in areas where public accountability is low. The question is how can technology facilitate public accountability and better governance? Over the last few weeks I started collecting data on corruption and comparing it to various attributes of countries within a single year, 2012.
For a very preliminary look at the role of technology in influencing democracy I have examined how social networks, principally Facebook, influence the perception of corruption within countries. What I have found hints at something important in the Tech4Dem space. I developed a basic model based on the premise that societies with higher usage of social networks are inherently more engaged and therefore are more likely to have lower perceptions of corruption. READ MORE »
NDI is pleased to welcome Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain for a conversation on the role of digital media in the recent MENA revolutions. Here is their talk today at NDI.
Howard and Hussain ask: Did digital media really "cause" the Arab Spring? Is digital media becoming fast "Democracy's Fourth Wave"? In their research, Howard and Hussain found that an unlikely network of citizens used digital media to start a cascade of social protest that ultimately toppled four of the world's most entrenched dictators. Drawing from an extensive data set, the two found that the complex causal recipe includes economic, political and cultural factors, but that digital media is consistently one of the most important sufficient and necessary conditions for explaining both the fragility of regimes and the success of social movements. The new book by Howard and Hussein looks at not only the unexpected evolution of events during the Arab Spring, but the deeper history of creative digital activism throughout the region.
In an era of rapidly increasing global interconnectivity, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have generated an unprecedented quantity of data. In 2012 alone, humans generated more data than over the course of their entire history. A report by the International Peace Institute, “New Technology and the Prevention of Violence and Conflict,” discusses the profound implications of new technologies and their potential for strengthening conflict prevention initiatives.
In line with the objectives of conflict prevention efforts, the report explores the contributions that cell phones, social media, crowdsourcing, crisis mapping, blogging, and big data analytics can make to short-term efforts to forestall crises and long-term initiatives to address root causes of violence. Through five case studies, the report examines how such tools can be leveraged in a variety of regions (Africa, Asia, and Latin America), types of violence (criminal violence, election-related violence, armed conflict, short-term crisis), and political contexts (restrictive and collaborative governments). The core question that guided the researchers of the project was, in the words of the authors: READ MORE »
NDI's Governance and NDItech teams are co-convening, with illustrious partners (Omidyar, International IDEA, CDDRL at Stanford University, Google.org, and other) a conference in the next few days on how democratic institutions respond to and more effectively to a global citizenry that is empowered with technology in unprecedented ways. Democratic institutions -- parliaments, parties, and governments - are under pressure to perform more efficiently and effectively, to open their often opaque ways, to be more accountable to their citizens - in short, to govern better. Around the world, established and emerging democracies are struggling to adapt to citizens who are mobilized with phones, tweets and Facebook pages. They are often slow to change and reluctant to give up old paradigms of power and access to (or withholding of) information.
Those with vested power are learning that the gatekeeping functions such as access and control of and to information is no longer possible in a socia media and tech-empowered world. At the same time, there is a contraction of civil liberties and freedom of expression online and tech is being used against democratization efforts. One participant describes this as a "cut and paste" movement of autocratic governments learning online from each other on how to surveil, restrict, and limit their citizenries with technology.
One #tech4dem participant put the challenge well: "The game has changed. You can not find the existing reality, you have to come up with a new one."
In the past 18 months, images have re-become the hottest thing online. Pinterest has nearly 10 million unique visitors per month, becoming one of the top ten most trafficked social outlets at the end of 2011. In 2012, Facebook saw some serious value in the mobile photo filtering app Instagram, picking the company up for a cool $1 billion. And everyone has pretty maps. In short, beautiful pictures, infographics, and visual data on the web are hotter than ever.
Enter the Kenyan 2013 presidential elections. The Elections Observation Group (ELOG), NDI's partner, increased its impact by plotting out a way to share the valuable and complex data collected from its massive election observers in a simple way online.
ELOG used an advanced Election Day monitoring methodology, also called a parallel vote tabulation, and explained what that is with a GIF and videos.
In 2010 ELOG systematically monitored the Kenyan Constitutional Referendum by deploying observers to a random sample of polling stations across the country. The observers rapidly reported their data via SMS back to a central data center so ELOG could evaluate how the election was going in near real-time.
That effort was the trial run for what ELOG would do and collect on election day 2013 - a day much anticipated and worried about after the very violent election debacle in 2008. ELOG analyzed the data following the 2010 poll and created simple sharable infographics that could be uploaded to Facebook and Twitter. The goal of these graphics was to demonstrate that ELOG had--and would be collecting--valuable data and key analysis about the quality of the process. The infographics were mainly targeting political parties and the election commission, but ended up also appealing to a keenly involved Kenyan political digerati.
A new report published in the UK examines the role that technology plays in providing citizens access to information and events related to Parliament. The report: “#FutureNews - The Communications of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World,” provides an interesting look at a strategic approach of the UK to increasing the openness of White Hall. It's long been evident that technology is diversifying the media through which citizens consume news and entertainment. It's also clear that it is incumbent upon governments to keep up with citizens to maintain transparency and accountability in democratic processes. Using new technologies and media strategies, the report argues, Parliament must insert itself in to the public debate and add substantive value to the the political conversation.
Following are key findings from the report and a brief discussion on how these takeaways are applicable in the developing world from an NDI Tech4Dem perspective. READ MORE »
Given my instinctive cringe whenever I hear the term "innovation" these days, the word may a wee bit overused. However, it the concept remains as important as ever - if organizations aren't trying new things, they're stagnating.
As a global organization working with partners in a lot of different country contexts, though, I sometimes have to check myself and remember that innovation lives in local contexts. NDI's supported scores of sophisticated election monitoring missions across the world using the Partial Vote Tabulation system, including most recently in Kenya. The methodology's a tried and true one - I'll write it up soon - and has been used for over a decade. From a global perspective, it ain't new.
Given their shiny new democracy and the fact they've only had one real fair election in generations, any form of election monitoring is new. Moving to one that requires thousands of citizens across the country to work in concert with an extraordinary degree of accuracy is a big deal. READ MORE »