Apps

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 Dropbox.com, Google Drive, Box.com, 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.

Circumventing Twitter Restrictions

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Turkey blocked Twitter. If you happen to have been on vacation over the weekend or haven’t had a chance to check out the newspaper in a few days, The Washington Post and Reuters both have good write ups on the potential political fallout of this Twitter block as well as some background information on the situation. The interesting thing, as noted in the Washington Post article, is that this “restriction” has had little effect on Twitter chatter within the country. In fact, in the aftermath of discovering that they were no longer able to access Twitter, tweets spiked to 138 percent of the normal posting rate, an ironic feat in light of the ban. This statistic begs the question, “How are Turks tweeting, and tweeting rapidly, and about a Twitter ban?”

Well, the answer is simple and not so simple. Turkey has faced routine website blocking for the better part of the last decade, most notably the 2008 restriction of access to Youtube (which was in effect for 2 years). By now, most Turks, especially the younger generation, are well acquainted with the various measures for circumventing such restrictions. In case you are not, here are a few of the ways to access Twitter in the event of a block.

  1. SMS

On March 20th, Twitter sent out a tweet instructing Turks how they could tweet via SMS on both Vodafone and Turkcell networks. SMS tweets are popular in areas with limited access to internet data, but in this case the service is proving to be multi-functional. Users can also receive tweets from friends that the user designates they would like to receive mobile tweets from. Obviously Twitter via SMS lacks much of the user experience of the broader Twitter app and website, but it still proves to be an effective work around.

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

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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 »

Online Organizing Platforms

@SenWarren opens #RootsCamp13

Our last RootsCamp ‘13 round-up identified free tools to maximize voice, and to collect and analyze social and mobile data. Each tool was quite specific in its purpose and execution. Beyond these, the attendees (vendors and activists alike) discussed a broader set of platforms (suites) that attempt to manage people and data in a way that allow for a variety of campaign and advocacy activities including petitions, member engagement, mobilization, etc.  As before, find a round-up of the best-of-breed at the conference below. Send any of your own suggestions, and we'll update the list.

Campaign Management

NGP VAN is the largest provider of political data management tools for progressives in the US. With it’s recent purchase of NationalField, which builds tools for managing field staff and volunteers, they provide an integrated platform of fundraising, organizing, new media, and social networking products.

NationBuilder is billed as “Political campaign software starting at $19/mo”, NationBuilder has developed an impressive set of online tools for campaigns including websites, voter databases, fundraising tools, and communications tools. Nationbuilder is looking to internationalize its platform. READ MORE »

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 »

Mobile Data on the Go: How to Use FormHub and ODK in 5 Easy Steps

Data Collection Gone Mobile - Image Courtesy FormHub

One of the key components to any well run organization is an efficient process for information gathering. This can seem a daunting task for professionals working from differing locations or even transnationally. Traditionally, organizations have relied on paper forms for collecting data only to later gather the forms and enter them manually into a database for analysis. Using web-based forms allows for real-time monitoring and analysis of data. Mobile collection of data also offers the ability to collect advanced data such as GPS coordinates, images, videos, and time stamp data - all on the go and in the field.  

The best part of using mobile-forms is that you don’t have to be a programmer or statistician to utilize them. Building web-forms is a fast, uncomplicated task that can be executed by even the least tech-savvy individuals.  In order to prove this, over the last week I have been working with two tools that are increasingly popular for mobile data collection: Formhub and Open Data Kit (ODK). Below is an easy 5-step breakdown for using Formhub and ODK Collect to enhance your data collection process.

READ MORE »

Culture and Cost, Safety and Services: Research on Mobile Phones and Afghan Women

Photo Credit: AFP

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.

  • Fear of technology is not a barrier.

READ MORE »

Instant Messaging on Smartphones: WhatsApp's Lack of Security

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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 »

Tech for Elections: Improving Data from the Crowd

Russia's Yandex smartphone app for reporting vote fraud (Economist.com)

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 »

iHeart iHub

Today I visited Nairobi's iHub. To my mind it's the poster-child for everything encouraging about tech for development in the global South.

You've got:

  • Savvy local developers, some novices and some with loads of experience.
  • International techies with a development background and comparative experience around the world.
  • A welcoming, open space that encourages collaboration.
  • Events that pull together the tech community with development groups and venture capitalists.
  • WiFi.
  • A coffee shop.
  • With delicious, delicious Kenyan coffee.

Seriously, what else do you need?

iHub is only about a year old; it's the brainchild of a group of local technologists including Erik Hersman. I was shown around by Tosh Juma, iHub's extremely welcoming community manager. The initial impetus for the creation of the space came from the Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS projects; both needed space to work and came up with this great way to do so with a funding lift from the forward-looking Omidyar Network. READ MORE »

Holy iCow

iCow

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 »

Democratic Development? There's an App for That.

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Apps4Africa

Innovative ideas coming out of the State Department these days.

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 »

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