What a tremendous start to SA III – hundreds of people, perhaps the greatest concentration of laptops per square mile in San Diego, incessant conversation and social networking mostly facilitated by the (unplanned) total failure of internet connectivity.
Beginning 0920hrs to around 1830hrs, there was no connectivity for the majority of users on site. In 55 minutes, there were 18 wifi clouds, none with access to the internet. It was an interesting real life demonstration of an austere environment, and very useful as well, though perhaps much more austere than the organisers had intended.
Some observations from the first day:
Around 35 million dollars worth of it in fact. Much of the technology here seems to be cutting edge stuff designed for communications in austere environments, but not necessarily conflict zones of full blown disaster areas.
Perhaps given the total lack of internet access for the entire day, except for a few individuals (amongst around 400), the conversation was literally deafening. As participants realised they could not do what they expected they could during the day, the interest in neighbouring technologies and ideas developed, resulting in swarms of people and ideas that mashed up technologies for both the SA III scenario as well as some real world problems.
I had a wonderful conversation with John Francis, who is SA III’s ethicist and a wonderful person to share ideas of peacebuilding with. I met Chamindra de Silva from Sahana for the first time, all the while thinking that we had to both come to San Diego to meet each other. Sahana for me goes well beyond an application to be used in humanitarian aid – some of the modules can be adopted to be used in mapping and reporting human rights violations, a central aspect of any peace process.
Although selling is actively discouraged at SA III, I was able to respond positively to a gentleman who came up and started to pitch a web based SMS messaging system by giving him an idea for a system that could be of great use in both citizens journalism but also in a post-disaster scenario.
The idea was to have a webpage broken down into various tabs that could represent geographical areas, issues, political parties, NGO groups etc, that each had a list of SMS or MMS messages. This simple webpage could be a powerful way of ascertaining public opinion and stimulating dialogue on certain issues, quickly ascertaining ground condition after a disaster and also help in the public dissemination of information. The idea can of course be developed further to have secure webpages with information that is more sensitive coming in from the field. I also suggested the possibility of an RSS feed from this webpage – which would enable the SMS / MMS feeds to be read by any newsreader or RSS capable programme / device – including for instance, Microsoft FM radio enabled watch capable of displaying emails, SMS and well, the time and date.
The challenge, as I see it, of those assembled here, will be to develop satisficing solutions to the challenges of SA III that work beyond the controlled chaos of the SA III site.
For instance, discussions about what groups could be used for the disaster preparedness planning focussed on groups and state architectures that would be deeply distrusted, incompetent, partisan, dysfunctional or non-existant in the developing world (and as Katrina proved, was the case in the US as well). This was partly on account of a confusion of the fictional location of the pandemic scenario – whether it was San Diego or a first world city, or whether it was a developing world location. Either way, I think greater clarity on the location would have helped – it is simply not possible to map out a disaster preparedness plan or post-disaster management scenario that is globally applicable. At the very least, such designs need to take into account the huge differences of state and non-state capacities, including degrees of citizen involvement and awareness, in the design of such frameworks. Without clear direction of this nature, SA III runs the risk of producing some extremely interesting results that can’t be tethered to real world scenarios.
As an aside, tried to install Boot Camp 1.1 beta on my Mac but the system threw up a disk error at the partitioning page, which in order to fix I needed my original OS X CD’s, which I did not bring with me to San Diego.
The unexpected travails of technology, writ large, is what SA III is all about.