I'm on the ground in Liberia working on a parliamentary modernization program with the national legislature. NDI does a lot of this work with the idea that a more effective, responsive and competent democratic government is a heck of a lot better for its citizens and more likely to endure.
Liberia's had a rough 30 years and it shows. The World Factbook indicators make for grim reading, and it is telling that the only good road through Monrovia - city of 1.3 million - is rarely busy.
The legislature has had a correspondingly difficult go of it. We're trying to help where we can.
One of the more prosaic but surprisingly complicated parts of a legislature is how a bill becomes a law. Go right ahead and do your review, I'll wait.
So with all the bouncing around a bill does, it's really important to keep track of where it is. Not just in the process - physically, too. It's a pain when you lose it. With the help of a former Chief Clerk* of the Montana State Legislature, we've set up something to do just that.
North Africa is in chaos. Following on the heels of Tunisia's revolution, Egyptian citizens have taken to the streets in a massive show of anger and frustration with President Mubarak's 29 year rule. Don't miss the vivid pictures from the Boston Globe's The Big Picture.
People have been arguing about whether social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are relevant in real-world activism and organizing against authoritarians. Well, some new folks with very relevant opinions have weighed in on the topic: the autocrats themselves.
In Tunisia and Egypt as protests have swelled the regimes have moved to cut off or control access to Facebook and Twitter. By doing so, they're making things harder for themselves as well - it's the "Dictator's Dilemma." If people love a certain service and you take it away, you may be limiting their organizing potential, but you're also pissing them off, and getting people involved who might otherwise have been untouched.
Egypt started with blocks on Twitter and then Facebook, but then people turn to other tools. SMS was shut off next. READ MORE »
Belarus' people went to the polls December 19. It didn't go well, as Alexander Lukashenko's implausible 80% victory added to a string of reallygrim elections of late. The OSCE statement noted "observers assessing almost half of vote counts monitored as bad or very bad". NDI's partner organizations were on the ground, watching it - but their tech-enabled reporting system had been crippled.
A couple months back I traveled to the region to work with some of our Belarusian partners as they prepared to peacefully monitor the elections. One major component of the effort was using SMS to try to get numbers back as fast as possible for analysis. READ MORE »
NDI does some cool stuff, but for real influence you can't top good ol' Uncle Sam.
One of the most important audiences for NDI's AfghanistanElectionData.org visualization tool is policymakers at the State Department, USAID, and on Capitol Hill.
By developing open tools that can be used by all - including top policymakers - efforts like this make for better informed decisionmaking by the people who really control the levers of power. And our friends in government tell us they get a lot of milage out of the site.
Of course, State or AID could have built their own, private version to use internally. But by providing the resources to let NDI and our coding partner Development Seed put this together, everyone can make use of the data.
The folks who have the most invested in this information are the Afghan people themselves, of course. During the launch of the data from the Presidential elections last year we found that the demands on bandwidth and browsers were too much, and that for some the site was too slow to be of practical use. The 2010 site is much faster; I can't wait to hear stories of how the site is used by the citizens of Afghanistan.
YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms are not exclusively - or primarily - a tool for political activism, despite the sense you'd get from folks like us writing about them. This is a good thing.
People living in closed societies are mostly just living, like everyone everywhere. Most content generated, whether media or text, isn't going to targeting a thuggish government; folks are going to share random slices of their life. Except for the few activists. That low ratio is important.
Mao nailed it on insurgency strategies: the guerilla is a fish that swims in the sea of the people. That's what is going on here. If a big swath of the people are using, say, YouTube as part of their life, a complete block or shutdown is going to be wildly unpopular. The masses will be more pissed at the government and sympathetic to the activists. READ MORE »
It's early innings yet for WikiLeaks'* CableGate** - they've released 1/10th of 1% of their monstrous cache of 250,000 total cables from within the State Department so far, so any analysis that doesn't come from the official
partners is necessarily shallow.
Fortunately I'm a shallow person, so I'll dive right in.
This massive dump information, delivered electronically, sounds an awful lot like Open Data - the idea that governments automatically publish some of their information generated electronically for the public good. I'm afraid that the fact that it bears a resemblance to this leak will make any sort of data sharing by the administration tainted by association. With people calling for the head of WikiLeaks' erratic leader Julian Assange and both the Pentagon and State Department embarrassed by these releases, it's likely that the information sharing will dry up. READ MORE »
It's been a great year for technology in foreign policy and development, and we've got a lot to be grateful for. So before we sign off to gorge ourselves on delicious holiday fare, we wanted to share a few of the things that we on the NDItech team are thankful for.
The digital divide isn't as yawning a chasm as it looked in 2000.
Being paid to play with cool tools like FrontlineSMS, TOR, and Linux on a Stick.
Twitter. Fantastic way to get to know colleagues and stay on top of what's going on. Plus, the fail whale teaches one a certain zenlike patience.
The citizens around the world with whom we work - these are people who are risking a lot to work for freedom and competent government.
Open source communities of volunteers that somehow magically create and build amazing platforms like Drupal, Ushahidi and CiviCRM.
The momentum behind Open Data and Open Government - creating a whole new set of opportunities for NDITech and our partners to help democratic governments be more transparent and accountable.
Our coworkers on the NDItech team, who are a lot of fun as well as pretty damn smart.
And since it's the season... that Turkey has unblocked YouTube.
And of course, for you, our faithful readers. (Hi mom!)
We're going to be off for the long weekend, so regular posting will resume Monday. Eat way too much in the interim.
Using a web-based system to enter the information from each observer, coordinators were able to look for gaps, do on-the-fly analysis to flag anomalous results, and look at trends by district, time, or other criteria. The central database was built by local developers, and enabled EMDS to rapidly aggregate, process, and examine these observer reports. EMDS was able to rapidly report on the situation and call out the regime for their electoral abuse. READ MORE »
NDItech has recently been doing a lot with a slick piece of software called FrontlineSMS. It's not new, but it's been a powerful solution for us of late, so I thought I'd share.
Frontline is a tool to allow people to do basic two-way SMS communications via standard laptops and cellphones (or, preferably, GSM modems). Frontline was designed by Ken Banks to facilitate interactions within conservation groups in parts of Africa without internet access.
Given its heritage it's not surprising that Frontline really nails our mantra of "appropriate technology" in a number of ways.
It doesn't have a steep learning curve. Our partners in Eastern Europe downloaded and got it working on their own before I even got to show it to them.
It runs on very common technology
It communicates with people where they are: text messaging. Across Africa, as we've mentioned, mobile phones are far and away the best way to reach people.
In the vast swaths of the world where only elites are on the internet, this is a great way to build connections between organizations and their members, whether civil society groups, political parties, or other groups. READ MORE »
I hit the World Bank today for "Mapping for Results." Putting results front and center is a great idea - as mapping has shot up the hype cycle, it's nice to focus on what it can do beyond putting up pretty pictures. However, I call False Advertising on the conference coordinators.
Maps are a particularly sexy current form of visualization, and there's a lot of great information that can be conveyed that way. (Shameless self-promotion: Like, oh, AfghanistanElectionData.org/.)
The real star of the panels at the event today was not the maps: it was the data backing them. Like the puppeteer pulling the strings, the maps only do what the data tells them to. Panelists returned time and again to the importance of open data and easing access to it.
The World Bank's been a real leader in the Open Data movement; their site, data.worldbank.gov, has thousands of data sets available for download. A lot of neat work has been build on top of their information already. But it's hard, cuz it's yet another data silo. All that info has to be pulled from their site and integrated into your own. READ MORE »
Last time I touched on State's "21st Century Diplomacy" push, so I thought I'd elaborate. One of the core concepts is that no single organization, including the Department of State, has all the answers to the problems of international development and diplomacy. As such State has been making a real effort to be "conveners," using their name, reputation, access to power, and (yes) money to pull people together.
This was partly born out of the Haiti disaster response experience; many of the successes of the relief efforts can be credited to the fact that State had the connections to pull together a disparate group of folks from the military, major NGOs, and a disparate group of Internet-connected activists. This was a proving ground for concepts like Ushahidi and CrisisCamp.
As an aside, such networks, rather than classical hierarchical companies, are a fascinating innovation in organization only really possible via the Internet. As transaction costs approach zero and physical proximity becomes less and less important, the whole concept of the corporation may end up becoming obsolete, replaced by ad-hoc networks that can form to tackle specific problems and then disperse. READ MORE »
I woke up waaay too early this morning to go see Alec Ross, the State Department's Senior Advisor for Innovation speaking on 21st Century Diplomacy, the Obama Administration's branding for their thinking about tech in foreign policy. Some have mocked the State Department for their rhetoric on the topic, but for a very, very large bureaucracy State has made some rapid shifts.
State, and Alec's remarks, really emphasie mobile tech. Ross observed that the number of mobile devices has increased 20% in the 18 months he's been in his job. It's now the case that a very large percentage of all humans on this planet are in areas with cell coverage.
Oh, and all of this happened on the back of private business. All these cell towers went up without a gazillion dollar World Bank-funded project or the work of foreign charities because it's profitable. Make that very profitable. Many of the richest businessmen in Africa (e.g., Mo Ibrahim) made their fortune in mobile networks, and Safaricom is one of the biggest firms in East Africa. READ MORE »
The Apps4Africa event has wrapped up, and the winner has the most charming app name I've ever heard: iCow.
Apps4Africa, as you doubtless recall, is the State Department sponsored program to fund local development of innovative apps to empower people to solve problems in their own community.
The winner? iCow. It's a program to track the times when your cattle are, well, ready for gettin' it on.
I certainly would not have thought of that.
Another very clever innovation - it's entirely voice-based. In largely non-literate societies, text based solutions could freeze out most of your potential target market.
Contests like this are not a silver bullet (what is?) but they're a great way to encourage people to jump into this space and come up with some creative ideas that would never have emerged in a State Department conference room.
Now to really make a difference the apps will have to get into the hands of the people who can use them. That's a distribution problem and a marketing problem, but I'd imagine it's also particularly a technology problem. I don't know what the penetration of smartphones is among illiterate dairy farmers, but it's probably not that high - yet. READ MORE »
International democracy promotion, like all development work, can be a frustrating, difficult slog, full of setbacks or years without visible change. And yet, at the right moment, it seems like a regime can prove as brittle as glass.
In the long periods of toiling in the shadows, tech development professionals can work with partners on the ground to build the relationships, the tools, and the organizations to be ready when the moment strikes. When the eyes of the world are watching, well-prepared organizations can make change happen - and tech can assist.
Silicon valley peeps, drop by Stanford and say hi!
Wired has a nice piece on the successes of for-profit development. You can argue back and forth on the place of international NGOs for development vs. corporate market-based solutions - but I'm not going to.
Instead, I'm going to pull out a great quote:
The trick is balancing affordability and quality. In a Harvard Business Review article last year, Govindarajan, together with Tuck colleague Chris Trimble and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, wrote that people in emerging markets “are more than happy with high-tech solutions that deliver decent performance at an ultralow cost—a 50 percent solution at a 15 percent price.” That’s not a green light for lame products, though. As in any market, what’s being sold has to fill an unmet need. The poor may be poor, but they’re not stupid.
As a non-profit NDI isn't in business to try and make a fortune, so we have the luxury of not being concerned about finding the profit maximizing, market-clearing price for our wares. READ MORE »
So you wanna secure your organization. You’ve thought about the appropriate balance of security and complexity for your team. You’ve taken steps to clean up your computer and lock down your network. Whew! Mission Accomplished, right?
Sadly, no! Security is a process, not a product. You don’t just spray your laptop with Hacker-B-Gone™ and call it a day.
If your data is what you are trying to protect, then you have to think about every step of the process: READ MORE »
Just back from a trip to Erbil, Iraq. NDI is working with the Iraqi parliament on a new project, and one of my main roles was finding local coding wizards to build the software.
I was impressed with the local talent. I've spent some time as a developer myself, and these guys were very professional and entirely competent. Some of the graphic design work was a bit mid-nineties, but animated gifs never really went out of style, right?
The NDItech team could code up programming projects like this ourselves or hire well established firms in the US and probably get the job done a lot faster and cleaner - but the extra trouble is worth it.
Like all development groups, NDI's goal is to make the world a slightly better place. If we can provide a bit of seed capitol and credibility and serve as a support to such new software firms that will get them that much further as successful entrepreneurs in their local community.
It's a nice Kristoff-style human interest piece. What really intrigued me was his comment on the bikes they chose and the methods of maintaining them:
[The donor's] plan was to ship used bicycles from the United States, but after visits to the field he decided that they would break down. ... After consulting with local people and looking at the spare parts available in remote areas, Mr. Day’s engineering staff designed a 55-pound one-speed bicycle that needed little pampering. One notorious problem with aid groups is that they introduce new technologies that can’t always be sustained; the developing world is full of expensive wells that don’t work because the pumps have broken and there is no one to repair them.
So World Bicycle Relief trains one mechanic — equipped with basic spare parts and tools — for every 50 bicycles distributed, thus nurturing small businesses as well.
The Apps4Africa contest is designed to encourage and support African mobile app developers to dream up and build tools that make a difference in the places they’re most needed. Here at ICT Central Control we spend a lot of time thinking about appropriate technology – what is it that the people on the ground actually need and can really use. What seems useful in the US can prove useless or worse in the field.
When you empower people to build their own tech themselves not only are they the ones who know what they need, but it’s the ultimate in sustainability: these new developers will then be able to go off and continue making useful code contributions long after the cash rewards from Apps4Africa have been awarded.
The same idea has taken root in a very different environment at the Pentagon, where a recent apps development contest bypassed overpriced and cumbersome procurement plans and netted enterprising GI Geeks $3K each. READ MORE »
I'm currently in Erbil, Iraq in the Kurdistan region, doing an assessment of an upcoming project with the Iraqi Parliament.
The NDItech team travels a good deal for this kind of assessment. When one of NDI's regional teams is going to be running a program that has a significant technology component, we'll get involved to make sure that the best technology given the local conditions is put into place and implemented well.
There are a lot of questions to consider when getting a technology and development project up and running. READ MORE »
People sometimes come to ICT to ask “How can I make my computer and network secure?”
To which I will respond: “Well, what do you mean by secure?”
This makes me very popular.
The first problem is that there is no big red on/off switch that toggles between secure and insecure; it’s a spectrum of possibilities where you trade off complexity, expense, time and training against safety. Even similar setups in, say, NDI’s different regional field offices need to find their own balance. There is no blanket statement that handles everyone's situation.
The second problem that makes security hard is that it is a process, not a product. We’ll go into that in Part II.
The art in computer and network security is knowing what you need to protect and from whom you need to protect it. If you have to save your data from the NSA or the PLA, well, good luck with that. Large nation-states are going to be able to get your data from you, whatever you do. READ MORE »
Crowdsourcing is a really useful methodology for lowering the barrier to participation in reporting on events in real time, even though it isn’t a silver bullet, as I’ve commented.
Unfortunately there’s always been a bit of an irony in the problem that while the barrier to participating in a crowdsourcing project using the highly successful and influential Ushahidi platform was low, the barrier to set up the IT server infrastructure to host it was high.
The clever folks there have taken care of this problem with the launch of Crowdmap, a hosted service that lets one serve up a deliciously fresh and tasty mapping platform with a few simple clicks of the mouse.
It is now harder to create a Facebook account than to get a crisis mapping system rolling.
This isn’t the end of the work required in getting a solid crowdsourcing project rolling; as Patrick Meier (personal friend as well as dev-tech innovator) has said, getting the instance set up is only the beginning of a successful crowdsourcing project. However, it’s a significant technical barrier – now interested crowdsourcerers don’t need to know UNIX from eunuchs to get rolling. READ MORE »
Crowdsourcing is hot. Empowering everyday citizens to take small steps and have powerful impact through collective action is one of the most fascinating revolutions permitted by the Internet. The barrier to participation has dropped. Now anyone become an activist! Hooray!
But there's still one thing needed: motivation. Even when the bar is low, the vast majority of people will not participate in any given activity.
Take voting. It's free. It's your civic duty. You even get a sticker. And yet it's considered a good day when we hit 55% participation.
In party primaries important decisions are made by far fewer; most people just don't care enough to vote. Even if you could cast your ballot from your couch, there'd still people who would not participate.
The "demos" of the word democracy is the people - the masses, the rabble, the hoi polloi, the plebes, the great unwashed. One of the most powerful transformations of the past 10 years has been spread of tech to the demos.
In 2000 we were very concerned about the "Digital Divide;" today in one form or another technology has penetrated many of the most distant corners of the world, making some of the world's poorest people into tech experts. This is an astonishing change from the days when Thomas Watson, head of IBM, saw a worldwide market for, oh, a couple dozen computers or so.
The tech explosion is a sea change for international development in general, but it’s radically disruptive for those of us in democracy development. This revolution is the focus of this blog.
NDI has been working in this field for 25 years; we don’t have all the answers, but we do have a lot of ideas and experience.
Those of us in international development are here because of that idealistic dream of saving the world. We hope that by sharing some of our ideas and experiences we can help everyone get a bit closer to that goal.
If you’re here, you’ve probably got great ideas and innovative experiences, too. We at NDI hope to open a conversation among all the people working on this intersection of technology and democracy - development pros in DC, techies from IT firms, academics pondering in their ivory towers, implementers on the ground, app developers in Nairobi. READ MORE »