Creating a Secure, Inexpensive, Personal Sync Solution

A Personal Sync Solution - BitTorrent Sync
As technology has evolved it has become increasingly commonplace for us as users of technology to expect our files to be where we are. With solutions like, Google Drive,, OneDrive by Microsoft we are often allocated a moderate amount of space. Yet with recent revelations about surveillance and censorship by the NSA and others and the cost prohibitive nature of using these tools when larger volumes of storage are required I wondered if there wasn’t a solution that was 1.) Free and 2.) more secure. This led me to BitTorrent Sync. First, BitTorrent Sync is free, although not open source. It works on Windows, Mac, Linux, ARM, Intel, iOS, Android, and several others. It has both desktop and mobile based applications. You can even install it on a NAS device. 2. Your data is only stored on your devices. BitTorrent Sync makes the following security claims
“The system uses SRP for mutual authentication and for generating session keys that ensure Perfect Forward Secrecy. All traffic between devices is encrypted with AES-128 in counter mode, using a unique session key. 
The secret is a randomly generated 20-byte key. It is Base32-encoded in order to be readable by humans. BitTorrent Sync uses /dev/random (Mac, Linux) and the Crypto API (Windows) in order to produce a completely random string. This authentication approach is significantly stronger than a login/password combination used by other services.“
What BitTorrent Sync allows you as a user of data to do is to bypass the middleman on the internet as the image below illustrates. Much like traditional P2P technologies you are simply downloading files from other devices.

Data Centric for Low (No) Cost

Malawi - Roadside Shop - February 2014

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 »

Pitfalls in Tolerance: An Analysis of Twitter Data for Electoral Predictions


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 »

"You Were Identified as a Participant in a Mass Disturbance"

Ukrainian Mobile Provider MTS SMS sent to protestors says: "You were identified as a participant of mass disorders"

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.)


My New Year's Resolution Is Good Digital Hygiene. It Should Be Yours, Too.

It is important to practice good digital hygiene!

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 »

RootsCamp '13: Free Tools

Roots Camp Logo

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 »

That's Random: RCTs in Democracy and Governance

Random Number Generators

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 »

Technology is a life changer...

How is technology changing your life?

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 »

Learning ADIDS - Digital Security Trainings for Grownups

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.

With ADIDS, you’d go through a series of stages on a given topic. It also makes Death by Powerpoint refreshingly implausible. READ MORE »

Our Digital Future: What's Next for Internet Research

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.


The Communications World has Changed. Have your Programs?

Use current methods of communication.

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.


Tips and Tools - NOI's Organizer’s Toolbox

Photo credit: New Organizing Institute

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.  


Crowdmap: The New New Crowdsourced Map

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 »

Facebooking To End Corruption?

3-D Scatterplot of CPI, Facebook Penetration %, and Polity IV Score

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 »

New Technology and the Prevention of Violent Conflict

Prevention of Violent Conflict Report

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 »

#FutureNews - Techifying Parliamentary Communications

#FutureNews - The Communications of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World

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 »

Innovation in Context

Innovation comes in many forms. And you sure hear it a lot.

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.

In Tunisia, however, it's a massive step. (No, not this kind of step.)

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 »

Academic Perspectives on #Tech4Dem

International Studies Association Annual Convention 2013 Recap

Last week thousands of international studies scholars from around the world converged on San Francisco’s Hilton Union Square for the International Studies Association (ISA) annual convention to discuss issues ranging from national security and feminism to democracy and development. The week-long event featured dozens of panels on tech for democracy and development. Although I was only able to attend a few of the many panels on Tech and Democracy and Development, the ones I did attend were engaging.

One panel, “Theorizing Media Governance and Regulation in the Global Information Society,” highlighted trends in the development of legal and regulatory practices across countries and over time. This panel highlighed many of the issues currently being faced by democracy development organizations and activists on the ground. Three of the papers on the panel examined the spread of ICT rules and regulations across national borders. The process of legal and policy creep across borders can significantly affect Internet freedom and access in whole regions and impact the effectiveness of organizations to engage in development activities. READ MORE »

Sustainability (in ICT4D) is Overrated

Women trained on computing fundamentals at iLab Liberia.

I started my day yesterday (deplorably early) at a (very engaging) discussion on the role of technology hubs in international development. It was the most recent Tech Salon sponsored by Inveneo.

I’m a big fanboi of these tech hubs (as you already know) so was happy to join the conversation. While the discussion had a habit of wandering away into a thicket of mobile apps monetization challenges, it did clarify some thinking on my part.

Namely, ICT4D (tech for development for the uninitiated) sustainability can be a red herring.

Of course in the development biz I believe successful projects are the ones that continue on through lo the many years. However, if one is too doctrinaire on this point, incredibly valuable ideas may never see the light of day. iHub Nairobi came into being on the back of a bunch of Ushahidi money, and served very usefully as a home for projects dedicated to social good without being able to cover their costs for years.

The perfect example is iLab Liberia. That organization has the second fastest internet connection in Monrovia (number 1: NDI field office) and they have to pay through the nose for it, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars a month. The need to cover those costs - let alone staff, computers, space, electricity - would condemn the project to failure. It’s completely unimaginable that profits from developed applications or user fees could cover those costs for years. They do a good job bringing in additional money via consulting (NDI’s a satisfied customer) but that can only go so far. READ MORE »

More than a Like: Creating Facebook Pages with Impact

A Guide with Impact

While creating a Facebook page or group may be easy, maintaining and gaining meaningful impact can be difficult. The folks at Social Media Exchange (SMEX) recently published "Creating Facebook Pages with Impact: A Guide for Arab Civil Society Organizations", which breaks down several important components of a successful Facebook-based campaign or initiative. The main audience for this guide is MENA region-based organizations (Arabic language guide is here), but there are several lessons that can be applied to other regions where Facebook is the most popular social media platform. 

The topics include:

  • Get to Know Facebook & Get Inspired
  • Lay Your Foundation
  • Assemble Your Team
  • Pinpoint Your Destination & Identify Who Can Help You Get There
  • Plan and Produce Your Content
  • Develop Interaction Guidelines
  • Publish & Promote Your Page
  • Monitor Your Page Performance with Insights
  • Survey Your Success, Tweak, and Do It All Over Again
  • 6 Tips For a Secure Facebook Page


Technology Tools for Activists Handbook

The best way to find out? Check out their handbook

Tech Tools for Activism (TTFA) has just released the latest version of it's handbook, with information and instructions for tools any activist can use. The handbook is not filled with flashy, sexy programs, nor does it give you THE one comprehensive answer that takes care of all your security needs. What the handbook does well, however, is to give you a simple explanation about why your security is at risk, and give you free programs that will help keep you safe.  Both the easy to read layout and educational explanations make this handbook a good primer for activists, their partners, and for anyone who has a general interest in security while using communications technology. 

Included in the manual are topics such as:

Tech for Elections: Telling a Compelling Story About an Election

"Great stories happen to those who can tell them." - Ira Glass

Beyond developing an effective organization and improving the quality of incoming information, technology is being used in systematic election monitoring to strengthen story-telling and outreach. 

Why Does Storytelling Matter?

People experience political change and electoral competition not as a series of numbers and results but as an experiences and narrative in building a democracy.  When collecting massive amounts of data as part of a systematic observation process, it’s important for election monitoring organizations to be able to tell a good story, often simplifying the conclusions to a few takeaways. These conclusions still need to be evidence-based and representative requiring an honest accounting and analysis.  But in our experience, a systematic analysis told in a compelling way is something few election monitoring organizations are able to do effectively.  Often, the story of an election is outsourced to journalists or political actors.  Simple data-visualization can help - together with a smart and sound strategy on how to deply them. READ MORE »

iLove iLab

iLab Liberia

Liberia has one of the least-developed communication infrastructures in the world. Literacy is at roughly 60%.  The nation is still recovering from one of the most brutal civil wars in recent history. All in all, not perhaps where one would expect to find a burgeoning group of tech innovators and wanna-be geeks. However, walk in the door of iLab Liberia and you'll find just that.

Kate Cummings, iLab's executive director, came to NDI last week to share some of her experiences working in Liberia. iLab is one of the tech hubs that have sprung up across Africa following on the model from granddaddy iHub Nairobi, epicenter of Kenya's digital development. One of the most exciting concepts I've seen in the world of development in recent years, these tech hubs provide a supportive environment for the experienced to teach the novice, for ideas to percolate, for business ideas to bloom, and for new tools to be shared. iHub, however, has an unfair advantage - they have an in-space coffee shop with amazing Kenyan coffee. READ MORE »

Tech for Elections: Improving Data from the Crowd

Russia's Yandex smartphone app for reporting vote fraud (

Collecting election-related data provides information about the conduct and integrity of elections - critical events in emerging democracies. This data is collected from both trained observers deployed in a systematic manner and from empowered citizens contributing their witness reports to provide a lense on the election. Collecting such data in an election allows civil society groups and citizens assess and evaluate the process, mitigate the potential for violence, reform the legal frameworks for elections, and engage citizens in menaginful ways. 

As I noted before, decisions on what tools and techniques to deploy for data collections in an election need to be driven by the intended goals.

NDI and our partners in many countries have pioneered and over the years greatly improved election-related data collection through trained and organized observers. Still still involves moving paper but also call-in centers, and, of course, highly efficient and systematic SMS-based reporting.  Citizen reporting efforts with the goal of engaging them meaningfully have, of course, proliferated.  Unfortunately, they also have often been plagued with the “Garbage In, Garbage Out” problem that has made it difficult to tell a cogent story about an election or come to any definitive conclusions. That said, we believe that citizen reporting can be useful especially in the period before election day to flag and highlight potential issues with voter registration and other preparations for election day. 

We are exploring a number of tools and methods in our work to intelligenty combine both systematic election observation and citizen reports both prior to- and during an election.  Some of these tools underused right now are: 

1)      Interactive Voice Response (IVR)

IVR systems (ex. Freedom Fone) enable automated, interactive, audio-based data collection and communication through mobile phone networks. They can be set to respond with prerecorded or dynamically generated audio to further direct reporters through a series of simple interactions. Their importance has been highlighted for reaching offline or illiterate constituencies, bridging language barriers, and allowing users to move past the 160 character limitation of an SMS. READ MORE »

Tech for Elections: Grounded Processes and Smart Tools

Get 'em in a row.

Often discussions of technology for (fill in the blank here) get confused about tools, techniques and processes.  This is especially true when the discussion turns to crowdsourcing, a technique where a group of individuals voluntarily undertake a task. In an electoral context, crowdsourcing often emphasizes participation over systematic evaluation. The use of online maps (a tool) emphasizes analysis and story-telling based on geographically relevant conclusions, at the expense of other analytical frameworks. 

Instead of tools and techniques driving strategic decision-making, it’s important to identify intended outcomes and the processes supporting those outcomes. 

In a recent NDI "ElecTech" workshop in Nairobi, we posed that any use of tech in elections should have as the primary outcome the ability to assess and evaluate the electoral process. We think it is helpful to think about four specific processes, a series of actions taken to achieve an end, where technology can significant impact the achievement of these outcomes.

These include: Organizational Structures, Data Collection, Telling a Story and Outreach. Let's focus on organizational structures first. 

Organizational Structures: Having Your Ducks in a Row READ MORE »

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