ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

Panel Discussion: Women’s Engagement with New Media

The proverbial glass ceiling has long been in the way of women’s upward movement within the public sphere, including in media institutions. How have women overcome the limitations of access and opportunity of the conventional media structures by increasingly and innovatively engaging with online media platforms and spaces?

The Sri Lankan chapter of South Asian Women in Media Network (SAWM Sri Lanka) organised a panel discussion on women’s engagement with new media, which I was invited to moderate. In addition to Sachini Perera from Women and Media Collective speaking about women’s participation in new media in general, four distinguished women delivered presentations of around 15 minutes each,

  1. DushiYanthini Kanagasabapathipillai (Journalist, Photographer) http://passionparade.blogspot.com/
  2. Tehani Ariyaratna (CEPA, Blogger) http://www.cepa.lk/
  3. Rushda Mohinudeen (Reach Out) http://reachoutlk.wordpress.com/ 
  4. Sanjeewika Manohari (Boondi, Blogger) http://www.boondi.lk, http://lihinisara.blogspot.com/

The presentations were uniformly excellent, and I understand will be published online anon by WMC and/or SAWM. I requested the panellists to consider the following points when preparing their submissions,

  1. Why are you engaging with new media? What inspired you, or forced you to do so, and why have you continued to publish and engage?
  2. How has your engagement with new media changed from the time you first started? What topics do you focus on and why?
  3. How do you perceive your role when using and engaging through social media?
  4. Has self-expression as a woman/female journalist/female activist, in your perception, increased qualitatively because of your use of new media? What kinds of expression do you engage in today, that you couldn’t do without new media?
  5. Has new media taught you to communicate key messages in different ways (i.e. long FB post, short Tweet, photo caption and photo, audio clip, and short video – around same issue)? How difficult was this learning process?
  6. Just yesterday, Ceylon Today, ironically a newspaper that has two of the most senior women journalists in Sri Lanka at its helm, published an article that was outrageously sexist, documented by myself and others on this email, including Women and Media Collective, via Twitter. Does new media strengthen gendered critiques of old media practises, attitudes and content? If so, how? Conversely, what examples of sexism and misogyny have you experienced or seen in new media platforms?
You may also wish to consider,
  1. The security dimensions, as a female voice/activist on new media. Do you occasionally or always publish content anonymously, pseudonymously, and if so, why?
  2. What tools and techniques have you found helpful to minimise risk, and engage with difficult issues?
  3. How have you dealt with hate speech against self, institution, family and friends? What are some coping mechanisms in this regard?
  4. How do you assess risk online? What are your markers of safety? When and how do you determine, based on online interactions and content, there is fear of physical harm to self, family, friends or colleagues?

Some notes I took down as moderator, to stimulate discussion and also responding to the presentations by the panellists, follow.

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  • As women move from the margins to the centre, and their use of new media grows qualitatively as well as quantitatively, there will be new challenges around privacy, safety and security as well as redefinitions of identity, participation and engagement. This discussions will be both shaped by, and mediated through, new media – the media itself will shape the content, and the content will go on to shape how new media will be used and perceived.
  • The need to move away from blogs and blogging, and to more nuanced discussions of how new media ecosystems can support advocacy and activism.
  • While the frustration with more rights based, gendered and high quality content creation persists, it is also the case that the more people who create content for and publish on the likes of YouTube, Flickr and various blogs also, over time, make it that much harder for the government to censor or block these platforms. While WMC can and must strengthen more serious advocacy by and for women, it should also encourage more content creation of any kind – the more people are online and using new media, the more the impact of censorship is felt across multiple levels and segments of society.
  • Activists need to augment their technical knowledge to keep up with privacy concerns and increasing sophistication of surveillance. The online and virtual today has a direct and immediate impact on the physical and institutional. This connection isn’t made in the minds of many activists, who remain more concerned about physical safety and security and less interested in online security and secure communications.
  • There are attendant challenges of growing audiences online, on multiple fronts. At its simplest, its about growing a fan and following base on Facebook and Twitter, which can cost money, and requires strategic thinking and an understanding of online social network and audience dynamics. There is also the challenge of reaching beyond the converted. Following and engaging with difference – which can often be rudely and insultingly couched – is another challenge. The language of hate, hurt and harm overwhelms the negotiation of difference online, esp. when anonymity is a handy cloak. The nature of this venom is particularly virulent against women and women activists – who need to develop coping mechanisms using technology as well as human/institutional networks.
  • Understanding one’s network influencers can be done through Wolfram Alpha’s Facebook tool – http://www.wolframalpha.com/facebook/
  • The central challenge of activists in the digital age remain one of the imagination. Activists and institutions consider new media as promotional extensions of their old, street level activism (i.e. by posting videos and photos online of demonstrations around Lipton Circus). While this is in and of itself useful and on occasion, extremely powerful, few if any in Sri Lanka are thinking of the wholly new ways of using social and new media for activism and the captivation of new supporters and audiences. A number of compelling examples in this regard were provided by panellists, and one hopes there is a more robust documentation of what worked when, with whom and why, as a template for others to emulate.
  • The challenge of hyper-connectivity and over-sharing. The first fractures our attention – our brains are today, quite literally, wired differently, because we engage with media and information in a fundamentally different way to how our parents did. A Microsoft researcher called this a few years ago ‘continuous partial attention’ – being ensnared by multiple information nodes (e.g. checking FB on mobile whilst listening to a panel presentation, and quickly tweeting something a soundbite, and at the same time snapping a shot of the speaker and posting on Instagram). Over-sharing (esp. through apps like Foursquare) means that we now share where we have coffee, and with whom. While both can lead to interesting studies of human movement and behaviour, in a repressive regime, they also provide a lot of information that could be useful in censoring and harming activists. The other problem of course is how activists can address a generation and audiences whose attention span is so limited.
  • Photography today is not just limited to D-SLR cameras. Every single phone now has a camera, and most smartphones today have cameras many times better than even low end digital cameras. The power and potential of these cameras to bear witness need to be encouraged and explored, esp. on women’s issues.
  • More awareness about Creative Commons licensing of content needed – http://creativecommons.org.
  • The enduring challenge of attribution can in part be addressed by CC licensing, but also requires mainstream media to engage with new media collectives, perhaps convened by the likes of WMC in the case of women who are active on new media, and how they can properly attribute content and use these new voices in their own reporting. Producers of content need to also make their content open, for e.g. http://groundviews.org/2013/01/24/complete-twitter-archive-19000-tweets-from-2008-to-2012/ (the Twitter archive download feature is being progressively introduced to all Twitter accounts)
  • Engage with Charitha Herath’s / Media Ministry’s new media ethics framework, due to made public in the next week or so. For a government that usually kills, maims, forces into silence or exile, censors and defiles us, even though there is great scepticism about the framework’s raison d’etre, it’s still useful to engage with him and the Media Ministry about it, esp. from a gendered perspective.
  • The challenges of anonymity on a platform like Facebook needs to be fully understood – as it stands, creating a false id on the platform is contravenes usage guidelines and risks account deletion. With the introduction of FB’s new Social Graph feature in the coming months, content on the platform will be far more open to other users, which again raises concerns about how much activists on it know about privacy controls.
  • Know what you want to say and do before embracing tools and platforms. A panellist noted the introduction of Vine by Twitter (6 second looping videos) but rather than be guided by the latest and most hyped tech, it is fundamentally important to ascertain which audience one wants to speak to and engage with, on what issues, and how. Being guided by tech is a recipe for disaster. Being guided by the thrust of a core message helps one select what tools to use, when, and with whom.
  • Know thy network – who are the connectors, who are the influencers. Wolfram Alpha’s FB tool noted above can help a lot in this regard.
  • Institutionally, leverage multiple networks for the greatest dissemination of content – if there is a very popular person in office who has a social media network many times greater than the institution itself, but doesn’t use it for activism, and there is a more advocacy oriented person who updates social media platform more regularly with say rights based content, it is useful to see how the two networks can complement each other.
  • The use of SMS wasn’t discussed, but there are a number of examples from FrontlineSMS alone, incl. in Sri Lanka amongst women – WMC has details – where it has been used. More study and emulation needed.
ICT for Peacebuilding

Websites at Risk – Archiving information on human rights, governance and peace

Websites at risk

I created and launched Websites at risk yesterday as a simple yet effective means through which to archive information and knowledge produced on the web in Sri Lanka on human rights, peacebuilding and democratic governance.

This has been on my mind for a while ever since I was appalled to be told that the website of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) completely shut down, without any notice, once it left Sri Lanka in early 2008. Everything on it – all their situation reports, press releases, CFA violations statistics, briefings and special reports are lost, perhaps irrevocably.

It’s this kind of information loss that is anathema in a peace process and for a serious scholar and historian of peace process, borders on the catastrophic.

As I note on the new blog,

A litany of issues is to blame. These range from an incumbent regime that is viciously intolerant of alternative narratives and perspectives on war and peace to a disturbing lack of awareness of, emphasis on and interest in securing information and knowledge for posterity by NGOs and other content producers, including governmental processes and actors. There is also a significant lack of any sort of business continuity planning amongst NGO and civil society actors in Sri Lanka. Most never learn, even when disaster strikes once.

Having archives of this nature is also helpful for students and researchers, since once downloaded, the entire contents of a website are available to browse offline, without any need for an Internet connection.

Design considerations

  • I chose WordPress because is is easily and effectively scaleable, is extremely reliable and not hosted in Sri Lanka.
  • I also chose it because it is much harder to block this specific site. The case of India after the Mumbai train blasts for example suggests that Governments are not averse to blocking entire blog sites. Doing so however guarantees international headlines – so it is hard to brush it under the carpet.
  • The WordPress database itself is kept as small as possible for easy portability.
  • No graphics at all are used in the site.
  • The archives are standard ZIP files that open on any PC – Windows, Mac or Linux.
  • All the archives are hosted on www.box.net. I bought a year’s worth of storage for around US$ 70 and uploaded the archives there. Considerations that weighed in favour of box.net were ease of use, access, reliability, familiarity with the system, a good feature set and security at a relatively cheap cost. It also offers unlimited downloads for each file. Box.net also offers WordPress integration, which I haven’t leveraged at the moment.
  • The name chosen is also scaleable. Since the essential idea is a valuable one for other countries, the idea was that each country or region would use sitesatrisk and at the end plug in their name – e.g. sitesatriskuk, sitesatriskkosovo.

Please visit Websites at risk and pass the word around to colleagues who will I am sure find the information already archived on it useful for their research on issues central to peace and governance in Sri Lanka.

ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

InfoShare – Transforming society through technology

InfoShare

I’m a founding Director and Head of ICT and Peacebuilding at InfoShare, which was set up in 2004 and currently provides services to a range of leading organisations in the development and civil society sectors in Sri Lanka and South Asia.

InfoShare’s main skill is in its ability to design ICT applications and services to support and strengthen the work of civil society and the development sector.

To date, our work has included systems for mission critical peace negotiations support, anti-trafficking collaboration systems in Sri Lanka and India, high-level donor coordination systems and civil society / NGO project and programme management platforms. Our work has also included, as part of Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential programme, designing and writing syllabi for sectors including media & journalism, tourism, garments and agriculture.

InfoShare is also a partner in the Last Mile Initiative. The LMI Project will utilize an innovative franchise business model that will empower local entrepreneurs in rural communities to offer value-added ICT-enabled services to rural customers. By developing a profitable business model, the project will seek to attract private investment and market entry in the provision of ICT-enabled services to rural customers.

The project is a multi-stakeholder partnership between civil organizations (InfoShare and its NGO partners), the government (Vocational Training Authority, or VTA), and donors (USAID and Microsoft). Approximately 60 CTCs located at VTA facilities will be supported, with upgraded infrastructure development supported by Microsoft in four regional centers, and additional infrastructure provided by USAID for VTA centers in the tsunami-affected areas. Using the UP curriculum as a base, the project team will develop industry-relevant courses that enhance the employability of the students. A train-the-trainer component will cover 180 VTA and NGO trainers; InfoShare will also establish a help desk to provide telephone support to these trainers. More than 3,200 people will receive the direct benefit of IT skills training at the centers. An additional 12,000 people will participate via the information and communications technology awareness program.

More information here.

We are a global thought-leader in ICT4Peace and are key partners with the ICT4Peace Foundation’s high-level ICT4Peace process. We don’t however just work at the policy level – our expertise and experience lies in designing and deploying ICT architectures on the ground / in the field, in support of peace and conflict transformation within cycles of violence.

In 2007 alone, we’ve managed to design a world-class human rights violations monitoring and reporting system, multi-lingual citizen journalism websites and various civil society, media and NGO websites with custom tailored content management systems that support English, Sinhala and Tamil.

More details of our work in the attached PDF.