Middle East and North Africa

Voto Mobile - Engaging and Polling Citizens with the Power of Voice

Voto - Mobile Engagement, Simplified

There is an election in a week,  you want to poll the citizenry before the election, and your financial resources are limited. What should you do? Should you (A.) Give up because it is simply not possible to get a full-fledged poll out in the field. (B.) Beg your donor to give you a last minute cash infusion to bring on more staff and a polling company. (C.) Join the 21st Century and leverage technology to generate a fully randomized national telephone poll using a platform like Voto Mobile. Voto Mobile's goal is to make interacting with an audience via mobile phones - either one-way via broadcast or two-way in an interactive fashion -- easy and inexpensive.

Over the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to sit down twice with developers and staff from the socially conscious start-up Voto Mobile. Based out of Kumasi, Ghana, Voto Mobile has the straight-forward goal of “Mobile Engagement, Simplified.” The company is leveraging the ubiquity of mobile phones around the world to enable both research and social engagement that offers CSOs, NGOs, Political Parties and other organizations new capabilities. READ MORE »

Animating Digital Security

Digital security can be quite challenging for activists working in conflict zones or similarly difficult environments. The SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom has produced the "Journalist Survival Guide", a series of animated videos aiming to provide journalists and citizen journalists operating in dangerous zones with the most essential recommendations on how to protect their physical and online safety. 

Our favorite videos include "How to Protect your Computer against Hacking and Malware" ...

 

...as well as "How to Get a Secure Internet Connection". 

 

Want to see more? All videos as well as accompanying scripts are available in English and Arabic. Enjoy!

The Social Factor in Iran's Presidential Elections - Small Media's Election Monitoring Report

Photo credit: The Guardian

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 »

Instant Messaging on Smartphones: WhatsApp's Lack of Security

WhatsApp Logo

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 »

Mobile Phones and Violent Conflict - Is there a Connection?

Photo credit: Al Jazeera

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.  

A new report, “Technology and Collective Action: The Effect of Cell Phone Coverage on Political Violence in Africa,” sheds light on the less beneficial aspects of communications technologies. 

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. 

READ MORE »

Democracy's Fourth Wave: Digital Media and the Arab Spring. A Conversation with Phil Howard and Muzammil Hussain

Democracy's Fourth Wave Cover

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.

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 »

The People Are Calling: Interactive Voice Services for Citizen Participation

ILA Dhageyso, a project out of Somaliland uses IVR to facilitate citizen-government interaction.

So you want to increase citizen participation in government and civil society, but the tech infrastructure is poor and there are low literacy rates with many people living in rural areas who are hard to reach. What do you do to increase transparency and civic interaction between a government and citizens? Poor tech infrastructure, rural populations, and low literacy rates are commong barriers to using tech in many countries where we work. Integrated Voice Response (IVR) provides a mechanism for civic interaction that breaks down many of the barriers to interactive civic engagement listed above. READ MORE »

Tunisian Idol: Web Debates Version

Videos from Munathara's Youth Debates

I recently wrapped up a whirlwind week in Tunis including initial planning for the upcoming election monitoring effort with our partner Mourakiboun and data managment meetings with the ruling and opposition parties. NDI's partnering with a savvy CSO named Munathara which is not just arranging one-off debates but building an entire debating culture in Tunisia.

It's pretty cool to be dealing with an organization that is doing its job so effectively you have a hard time suggesting areas for them to improve, though I'm not sure what it means for my employment prospects.

I love their approach. It's incredibly small-d democratic from beginning to end.

First, they start the process by soliciting ideas for what the next topic of debate should be. Vibrant conversations on their Facebook page are distilled into a handful of motions. These top topics are then posted as polls, and the community again weighs in to pick the debate subject for the next round.

Interested people then dive in to creating 33-second videos where they articulate the reasons they are for or against the motion. They've got a couple weeks to do so. Tunisian youth have created scores of videos for the site already. READ MORE »

Traversing Planet Blue Coat

Planet Blue Coat

Our trusted friends, the researchers at Citizen Lab recently published Planet Blue Coat, a report detailing the extent to which U.S.-manufactured network surveillance and content filtering technologies are used to facilitate repression against journalists, human rights activists, and other pro-democracy groups.

This is not a new problem. Software developed by Western countries to filter web-hosted content or otherwise obtain data from internet users without their knowledge and consent has been a serious issue for over a decade. It first emerged in China where Cisco Systems sought lucrative business opportunities with China's Golden Shield project, more commonly known as the Great Firewall of China. In recent years, similar technologies have emerged in repressive regimes throughout the Middle East, such as censoring and monitoring technologies in pre-revolutionary Tunisia and in Syria, as well as in closed societies such as Burma. READ MORE »

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 »

Are Hashtags Enough?

Stop 114A and Jordan Web Blackout

The twitterverse is no stranger to hashtag-calls-for-action, spanning from #free an arrested activist to #stop a particular piece of legislation from moving forward. The most well-known example of a hashtag campaign was the one to stop SOPA and PIPA legislations in the United States. Despite the lack of coverage of these proposed laws on traditional media, mobilization spurred through social media was effective to build a full-on campaign that ended up stopping the passage of this legislation. Recently, NGOs and other civil society actors have been trying to capitalize on this success to try and stop the passage of other internet-restrictive laws, such as in Malaysia (#Stop114A) and in Jordan (#BlackoutJo).

While the revisions to section 114a in Malaysia’s Evidence Act and the proposed amendment to the Press and Publication Law in Jordan are alive and well, the online mobilizations to stop them can still teach us some valuable lessons in use of social media in the campaigns. READ MORE »

Stay Safe Online...Through Pictures?

Tips for Staying Safe Online (referenced below)

The need for civil society organizations and activists to understand best practices behind digital security and digital safety has grown exponentially over the past few years. This need has expanded beyond closed environments to more open societies that may not have as looming of a threat of communications interception, targeted malware attacks, and other dastardly deeds.

While there have been a lot of “wins” for civil society in restrictive environments to use ICTs to mobilize ahead of key political moments, these regimes continue to step up their efforts to counteract such communication.

What's Happening in Sudan?

Sudan Revolts slogans (via Girifna)

Sudanese citizens have been demonstrating since June 18, following a series of brutal crackdowns of demonstrations against the announcement of a new round of austerity measures impacting food and fuel prices. Protests are not new to Sudan, with a faltering economy, continued conflict in Darfur and disputes with South Sudan fueling discontent. However, the recent demonstrations have evolved into a popular uprising, calling for freedom, peace, justice and liberty and the end of Bashir's rule.

Many observers believe that these recent protests are an indication that Sudan may be having its own Arab Spring movement. Sudanese activists Yousif Mubarak and Sara Elhassan reported on the blog Muftah: READ MORE »

Good News for Nowruz: Say Salam to Skype!

Google's On-Screen Keyboard in Farsi

This is a special Nowruz to anyone working on tech-focused programs for Iran: the Office of Foreign Assets Control under the U.S. Treasury Department has just released new guidelines on communication and other web-based technologies that can be used in Iran. Earlier this week, the White House illustrated that these services are of critical importance to Iranians, in order to keep them connected with their peers outside Iran, specifically stating, "We encourage American companies to make their software and communications tools available to the people of Iran to help bring greater access to the world’s knowledge and information, and to empower Iranians with the tools to make their voices heard".

Technologies that can now be used without requiring prior approval or a waiver include:

  • Personal Communications (e.g., Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, Microsoft Live, Skype (non-fee based))
  • Updates to Personal Communications Software Personal Data Storage (e.g., Dropbox)
  • Browsers/Updates (e.g., Google Chrome, Firefox, Intemet Explorer)
  • Plug-ins (e.g., Flashplayer, Shockwave, Java) Document Readers (e.g., Acrobat Readers)
  • Free Mobile Apps Related to Personal Communications
  • RSS Feed Readers and Aggregators (e.g., Google Feed Burner).

Afghanistan: Innovation Nation

Kabul Innovation Lab

Innovation is, according to Bill Gates, the "key to improving the world." Innovative technology is making its mark in the developing world, garnering the attention of both the public and private sectors. Companies like Nokia, Microsoft, and Google have led the trend of "reverse innovation," designing technologies especially for emerging markets. More direct, people-led innovation is occuring in Innovation Hubs all around Africa. These tech hubs, which provide space for collaboration and innovation, should continue to grow in 2012 and beyond. Last year, we all marveled at the ingenious mobile phone system created by the rebels in Libya - further raising confidence in the innovative minds of North Africa. But this week has helped bring awareness to innovation in a seemingly unlikely place - Afghanistan. READ MORE »

Second of Twelve: #EgyElections Day Two

Egyptian Data Clerks on E-Day 1

Hello dear readers - As is becoming something of a tradition I'm going to do a pot of liveblogging for Day Two of Round One of the First House of the Egyptian Elections. I'm doing it in reverse-cron format with newer stuff at the top. Regretfully I have to catch a plane to Nigeria tonight, so I'm going to be abandoning my friends here before the bitter end.

4:20 PM

And my time here is drawing to an end. We've been making a big push on our media outreach. Like the proverbial tree in the forest we want to make sure someone can hear the statements from Project Rakeeb. We landed one particularly big fish today with the Washington Post, who called Rakeeb "a team of well-regarded Egyptian electoral observers." Hopefully this will snowball into more mentions in other sources. READ MORE »

Egypt: When Tech is the Least of Your Problems

Data Clerks Training for the Egyptian Elections

I'm on the ground in Cairo supporting the first big electoral test of Egypt's revolution. At least that's the plan. As you might have noticed if you've been anywhere close to a media outlet in the last week, things have been a bit chaotic, and it's not a lock that the polls will take place on time. NDI works in a lot of volatile places, particularly around elections. Unpredictable environments like this leave us with a lot of factors that are simply not in our control.

Egypt is shaping up as the gold standard for those cases.

It's not really my role to comment on the politics of the situation in these pages, so I'll simply say the dynamics are fascinating, confusing, and worrisome. The twitters are again proving an excellent resource (#egypt, #egyelections, #nov26, #tahrir and old standby #jan25 are hot) and alumna Katherine Maher is posting interesting on-the-ground updates with Access Now on their blog. READ MORE »

Credibility, Engagement, and the Arab Spring

tunisia-observer-polling-station-382px.jpg

Journalists, politicians, and techies (and everyone else, it seems) have all been discussing the Arab Spring: from how it got started, to the role technology played, to how it will continue to unfold, these chaotic and exciting events have in high focus - especially as Tunisians and Egyptians head to the polls.  

To discuss this transition period, Vital Voices Global Partnership recently hosted Egyptian activist Esraa Abdel Fattah to discuss Egypt's transition period and I was there. In their conversation, Esraa talked about the role of women in Egyptian society, the role of social media, and spoke about her work as an activist.  

Fattah highlighted how social media provided youth and activists in Egypt with credibility as citizens could now support their observations with videos and photos. Social media became a tool to share this evidence and thus increase their credibility. READ MORE »

NDI Democracy Dinner Highlights

The NDI Tech team watched Secretary Clinton's keynote at last night's Democracy Dinner with great interest and not a little institutional pride. Among other highlights, we're still blushing to hear that "freedom knows no better champion" than NDI and our sibling institutions under the National Endowment for Democracy. I've collected the best of the coverage for our loyal readers: READ MORE »

Seeing the Ripples

Facebook Connections in North America

Earlier this year, my fellow intern wrote about Social Network Analysis and how it can be used to study the connections that make up the social fabric of networks. Understanding these connections can help strengthen information flows, improve communication and build partnerships. Visualizing such connections can create interesting and beautiful images that are powerful illustrations of the reach of social networks. Moreover, these images can provide a better understanding of how we can leverage social networks to improve civic engagement.

While demonstrations (like this video of how Google+ posts are shared) are simply cool, they also show how online social tools actively spread information. Similarly, this video shows an augmented reality simulation of Facebook friendships at work. These videos help show how connections develop and evolve over time. Such demonstrations can deepen our understanding of how we influence other people, and how that influence is spread throughout a network. READ MORE »

Silicon Valley Meets Net Freedom

Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, October, 2011

The Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference in San Francisco this week sought to connect tech companies that build tools and services that are used in challenging political environments with the activists and human rights groups that use them. As is widely recognized, particularly since the Arab Spring uprisings, these technologies often cut both ways in that they can be used by the good guys in support of political freedom and democratic development, or by tyrants to supress speech, access to information and monitor or surveil citizens. We've blogged about these issues extensively here at NDITech. READ MORE »

Social Media for Collective Action

Zeynep Tufecki

Climbing aboard the social media train ... I’ve been thinking about the special role of social media and collective action under authoritarian regimes since I caught a talk by Zeynep Tufecki at the Berkman Center last week. Tufekci’s research considers the question: how does an unpopular regime stay in power for so long? and how does social media play a role in how these regimes fall? Part of the answer is by solving the collective action problem.

So what is a collective action problem, and how does one solve it? Collective action problems are situations that require wide participation to solve, have high participation costs, and high costs of failure. This triple-threat makes collective action problems especially tricky to organize and solve. Authoritarian regimes often pose collective action problems, as there are few ways of organizing and the cost of failing often results in torture or being thrown in jail. Whenever dissidence appears, governments quarantine and isolate the hubs to ensure that protests don’t spread.

Factor in the challenge of misinformation - as a measure of self-protection, citizens who might privately oppose the regime publicly claim to support it. This in turn creates a false perception (or pluralistic ignorance) that friends, neighbors, and other potential collaborators are content with the status quo, although their views are different in private. READ MORE »

Power to the People

Twenty-Eleven has been a year of social media. From the Arab Spring to the London Riots and now even the Wall Street protests, this year's unfolding events have sparked discussion about the impact of social technology in our world. Understanding the connections between social change and social media has become a priority for activists, organizations, and governments alike. But the story isn’t straightforward.

The discourse around Twitter and Facebook has become more critical as experts, news stories, and even humor websites have started questioning the influence of such tools. A recent Washington Post article challenged five common misconceptions about social media. This article raises interesting points about who’s actually using these tools, how governments are reacting to them and what they are actually accomplishing. READ MORE »

Libya is Back Online! Sort Of?

Benghazi Internet

So first and foremost: this was not a social media revolution. This is just your friendly recap of what’s known of network connectivity in Libya during the past six months. Oh--and hai! I'm back.

A few months ago, a member of the NDI Middle East team walked into our office and asked how difficult it would be to wire downtown Benghazi.

She had just returned from eastern Libya and observed a need. Enterprising engineers had rigged a VSAT connection, turning the square in front of Benghazi’s main courthouse—the original site of the protests that would launch a revolution—into a public hotspot. People would cluster around laptops, waiting patiently on the shared network, scanning for updates from friends and family in the Ghaddafi-controlled west, or comparing official news against frantic rumor.

The answer was that wiring a city wouldn’t actually be that difficult in theory. In practice, it’s not exactly NDItech’s bread and butter (although I certainly offered to be on a plane that evening). Shortly thereafter, the question was mooted—the Libyans had restored Benghazi’s connectivity on their own. READ MORE »

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