Citizen Centered: Designing technology solutions for democracy at NDI

It’s amazing what humanity can do with the right tools. If you’ve ever looked up the work of Marshall McLuhan, he talks about how even the basic things we create change our outlook on life, politics and society. He’s also often attributed to having said, "We shape our tools and, thereafter our tools shape us…". The light bulb, for example, changed what time of day we can commune with each other.

I have been developing and designing software for close to twenty years. Since joining NDI, I’ve been thinking about the tools we build and how those tools, in turn, shape the lives of beneficiaries around the world. Human-centered design is the process of designing technology with and around the humans who use it. This process is analogous to building a bridge to connect two worlds. Just like civil engineers, practitioners of human-centered design at NDI must connect technology to the needs of citizens.

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In Fight Against Online Disinformation, A Variety of Tools Are Needed

Credit: Dave Taylor

In technology, you often hear geeks referencing the classic “garbage in, garbage out” problem. When the inputs to a system are bad, however beautifully crafted the program itself may be, the outputs will necessarily be bad as well. Our democratic systems are dependent on the input of citizens, but when disinformation is also an input the outputs of our processes can be deeply flawed. Disinformation and the systemic distrust it fuels has been a dangerous ingredient in the global surge of nativism, intolerance, and polarization undermining democracy and human rights around the world. Understanding and stopping disinformation is a tremendous challenge; any single solution will be incomplete so many will be required. In 2018, the fastest, most virulent and dangerous disinformation is spreading on digital platforms, and as such technical understanding is critical to wrap our heads around the problem.

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NDItech Goes to (Tech) Camp

NDI's Jesper Frant talks DemTools at TechCamp-Guatemala

The last few months, we here at NDItech – NDI's technology for democracy team – have had the great opportunity to talk civic innovation, transparency and accountability with dozens of civic groups, journalists and government officials through a set of TechCamps and PeaceTech Exchanges. These programs, put on by the State Department and PeaceTech Lab respectively, link technical experts with innovators across the globe to brainstorm, “pitch” and ultimately bring to life smart, contextualized tech solutions to pressing community problems. It’s been a pleasure for us (your bloggers) to be a part of these sessions, which we wanted to share a bit about with you all (our loyal readers).

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What makes some people more susceptible to disinformation?

New research is shedding light on why certain people are more susceptible to disinformation and what motivates individuals to choose to join hate campaigns. Photo credit: Dave Haygarth

Disinformation is one of the thorniest problems facing citizens online around the world today. Recent reports have highlighted that the problem is not only present, but indeed it is becoming more grave in the absence of proper solutions to combat it. While considerable thought and research have been dedicated to technological solutions, efforts at understanding the human mechanics of disinformation are still nascent. Exploring what demographics are most vulnerable or most likely to be targeted, why they are receptive to disinformation, and the mechanics of how disinformation spreads within their networks online and offline is key to finding effective solutions in the long term.

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Using Open Data to Verify Information in Elections

The Election Observation Group (ELOG) in Kenya used a unique data entry tool to match observer-captured images to official election documents

The August 2017 presidential election in Kenya was clouded by accusations of fraud and doubts about the accuracy of results posted on the Independent Elections and Boundary Committee (IEBC) website. Some groups alleged that information from the official polling-station-level presidential results forms (Form 34A) posted on the website may have been altered during the transmission of the forms from polling stations to the national level. The Kenyan Supreme Court’s ultimately annulled the August elections and called for a fresh presidential contest in October 2017. To promote accountability and transparency, NDI provided technical assistance to the Elections Observation Group (ELOG) to deploy 766 observers to polling stations across the country to systematically observe the fresh elections. Election observers were also instructed to take pictures of the completed Form 34As at their polling stations and send the images to the organization through designated WhatsApp numbers to verify the credibility of the data. Five-hundred and forty observers submitted clear photos of the Form 34As from the polling stations. With technical support from NDI, ELOG developed an online system to compare these forms with their official online counterpart.

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Can blockchain help rebuild trust in democracy?

Rachel Pipan, Allison Price, Tomicah Tilleman and Chris Doten (far right) in on-stage selfie right before their South by Southwest panel “Trust Crisis: The Need for Blockchain.”

Don’t get lost in the technobabble – blockchain is a confusing technology with a simple purpose: enabling groups that don’t trust each other to trade things or validate information without an all-powerful middleman. In a world where trust in institutions, including government, is declining, blockchain provides a useful way to create new systems to empower groups to work together and define what truth is. The blockchain is not synonymous with cryptocurrency, but it is related to cryptocurrency in the same way that the first application of the internet was email.

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INFO/tegrity and NDI’s Efforts to Combat Disinformation

Long before the issue of Russian disinformation became the subject of headlines in the U.S., NDI worked with partners to understand and counter efforts to manipulate information. NDI has continued to expand its in-house capacity and its external partnerships in this area through an initiative we've called INFO/tegrity, which focuses on efforts to detect, analyze, and combat disinformation online.

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New International Standards Needed to Protect the Open Internet

Reversing the rising tide of online censorship will require a coordinated multi-stakeholder approach to redefine norms for a free and open internet. Toward this end, NDI has been collaborating with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) to develop A Democratic Framework to Interpret Open Internet Principles. We strongly believe that it is those living in countries affected by censorship, surveillance or shutdowns who know best what they need to organize, advocate and build more democratic societies using the internet. In order to finalize the framework, NDI is committed to ensuring that the content of this framework is led by and includes feedback from a diverse group of stakeholders. NDI is requesting your suggestions and input on the framework during a public comment period, which ends November 17, 2017. You can read the draft framework -- along with additional information about its development and vision -- and provide feedback at https://openinternet.global. With a unified vision from civil society around the globe, this framework can help activists and advocates push against forces at the local, national or international level who threaten to squeeze the democratic potential out of the online communications revolution.

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Blockchain and the Public Trust

Attendees at the 2017 Blockchain Summit. From left to right as Heidi Pease from UCLA Blockchain Lab; Saadia Madsbjerg from Rockefeller (in front); Roya Mahboob (mic); Stela Mocan of World Bank.

In late July, a broad range of technology, business, philanthropy and policy leaders from around the world gathered at the third annual Blockchain Summit. This was no ordinary technology conference. First, nearly half the attendees were women; and second, the discussion centered less on technology and more on practical ways these new blockchain-based technology tools can be used for the public good.

Simply put, “blockchain” is a type of database used to store and keep public records. Changes to any records are automatically and permanently tracked and identical copies are stored in multiple locations. It is often described as a decentralized and distributed bookkeeping or ledger system designed to be a more secure and efficient way to transfer digital information.

Today, blockchain is best known as the technology underlying Bitcoin and other digital currencies. But the July gathering was devoted to exploring other non-financial industry uses where blockchain’s secure and verified digital record keeping also might prove valuable.

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How Smart Automation Can Be Used In International Development

Yes, that’s a cat in giant cat-foot slippers. Read the story to learn why it’s (vaguely) relevant to AI.

Artificial Intelligence is one of those buzzwords in tech that everyone’s heard, but few people actually understand how it can be used in practice. If you’re to believe Hollywood or Stephen Hawking, AI either means androids that are indistinguishable from humans (except for the inability to use conjunctions) or super-intelligent computers that could spell the end of the human race. After attending a Tech Salon on how AI can be used in international development, I can say with absolute certainty that it is neither of those things… yet. But the “commodification” of AI is making “smart automation” -- a term I quite liked as a useful synonym for AI -- much more accessible outside Silicon Valley. In fact, you probably already used some form of AI today without even knowing it.

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